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Wisconsin sand mines home to flourishing bat habitats

Anytime you see the main character of a scary movie moving very quietly and cautiously through a dark and dusty attic, it's inevitable -- a bat will fly out from behind a piece of antique furniture.

But even though bats are commonly used to supply the fear factor in everything from horror films to Halloween parties, there's much more to the creatures than meets the eye.

"A lot of people think bats are scary and creepy and kind of a pest, but they really are a very important part of the ecosystem," explained Lauren Evans, sustainable development coordinator for Wisconsin Industrial Sand Co.

WISC, a subsidiary of Fairmount Minerals, operates underground sand mining operations in Maiden Rock and Bay City. The mines are home to the second and third largest bat habitats in the state.

Decades ago, bats started naturally hibernating in the tunnels left behind from mining, Evans explained. More recently, WISC connected with officials from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to manage the habitat.

"They actually go through and physically count ... to get an idea of the number of bats that are using it as a hibernation spot," Evans said. "They make sure it isn't going drastically up or down."

In addition to counting the bats, the DNR collects data on their gender, age and species.

"There's one bat that they see in almost the same spot every year. It's 19 years old," Evans said.

While the DNR takes the reins on monitoring the bats, the sand mines do their part to keep the bat population they house from being disturbed.

"On our end, we have to make sure that everyone that is coming into the mines is aware of the program that we have," Evans explained.

To ensure the safety of the bats, rules are very particular about the clothing someone wears or the equipment someone brings into the mines. Also, a person cannot come in if they have recently been in another underground mine.

Without such control, the bats in the Maiden Rock and Bay City mines could be exposed to a common and devastating disease known as white-nose syndrome.

The disease causes white fungus to appear on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats. Once a bat has been infected, it is likely to exhibit uncharacteristic behavior during winter months, such as flying outside during the day.

While scientists believe white-nose syndrome is primarily transmitted between bats, they have also determined there's a strong probability that humans are inadvertently carrying the fungus from cave to cave on their clothing and gear.

Evans said the mines recognize the importance of bats, and that's why they're careful to keep them unharmed.

"We just feel that we have this opportunity to help protect them as a species so we're going to do it to the best of our ability," she said.

As a supplement to WISC's underground efforts, the company also has installed more than 15 bat boxes at its facilities in Maiden Rock, Bay City and Hager City. Two more boxes will soon be installed at Prairie View Elementary School in Hager City.

WISC welcomes interest from those wanting to tour its mining facilities and see the bat population up close, Evans said.

"We're always open to working with schools and community groups, bringing them in, showing them what we do and teaching them about the bats."