Biologists at the Colorado Division of Wildlife faced a big problem back in 1990. They wanted to protect important bat roosts in the state’s abandoned mines, but first they had to find the bats. Colorado’s rich mining history had left more than 23,000 old mines scattered across the landscape, few of which had ever been surveyed for bat roosts. The magnitude of the task was overwhelming. So the agency put out a call for volunteers, “citizen scientists” willing to donate their time for bat conservation. Two decades later, the results have surpassed their wildest expectations.
Abandoned mines pose safety and liability issues throughout most of the American West. Their inherent instability and other hazards present significant threats to people who venture into them or just stumble across them or enter to explore them. They frequently need to be closed to protect humans.
But abandoned mines also provide important habitat for a variety of wildlife, including bats, spiders, reptiles, amphibians, rodents, bears and mountain lions. Of the approximately 19 bat species in Colorado, at least 13 are known to use abandoned mines. Several species of concern in western North America, such as fringed myotis (Myotis thysanodes) and Townsend’s big-eared bats (Corynorhinus townsendii), regularly use old mines as maternity roosts, as well as breeding and hibernation sites. The solution typically is to close such mines with special gates that keep people out, while allowing the bats to come and go at will.
The Colorado Bats/Inactive Mines Project (BIMP) was created in 1991 under the leadership of Kirk Navo and began recruiting volunteers to help conduct preliminary bat surveys at abandoned mines scheduled for closure. The goal was to help biologists concentrate their limited time and resources on sites where the volunteers spotted significant bat activity. The initial response was encouraging, as dozens of people from varied walks of life signed on. Some were serious environmentalists who wanted to help make a difference protecting wildlife. Others thought it would be fascinating to explore old mining areas. And some just wanted to get outside and do some four-wheeling. But all of them thought it might be exciting to search for bats. Volunteers ranged from scientists with advanced degrees to homemakers with GEDs.
New citizen scientists were first trained in how to safely conduct bat surveys at abandoned mines and given an introductory course in Colorado’s bats. New volunteers were then paired with division staff or more experienced volunteers, who guided them during initial efforts. During surveys, volunteers watched for bats exiting and entering the portals, used bat detectors to listen for bats and worked with researchers. They monitored bat activity at mine entrances for two hours after sunset and recorded detailed notes on data sheets about bats, other wildlife and weather conditions. For safety reasons, BIMP volunteers never entered abandoned mines.
After a season or two, volunteers progressed from neophytes who struggled to remember bats’ common names to seasoned veterans who began speaking in the arcane lexicon of bat biologists: “That looks like a lactating female.” “There’s a keeled calcar.” “The ears are long — it’s an evotis.”
They learned and repeatedly demonstrated such technical skills as conducting safe and accurate mine surveys, recording information on bat behavior and activity, helping set up harp traps and mist nets, using bat detectors and much more. Some became so proficient they were offered paid positions as field technicians for the program.
These citizen scientists promptly developed a deep commitment to bat conservation and often-innovative approaches to it. BIMP biologists Lea’ Bonewell and Nancy LaMantia-Olson joined as volunteer citizens and were later hired as biologists for the project. During winter 2004-05, while surveying mines in southwestern Colorado, they noticed new mining claims were being posted on Bureau of Land Management lands. They were concerned that three of the state’s most significant Townsend’s big-eared bats maternity sites were located in abandoned mines on nearby BLM land.
“Why can’t we stake our own claims on these maternity sites?” Bonewell wondered as they drove home. They discussed the idea with other bat biologists, and that summer they and their colleagues spent several days staking claims on mines that were dubbed the Cory Mine, Pup Tent Mine and Mother Bat Lode. The Colorado chapter of The Wildlife Society and the Colorado Bat Society agreed to hold and maintain the claims.
The team then worked with the BLM to explore options for permanently protecting the lands from future mining activity. Finally, on May 26, 2009, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar signed Public Land Order No. 7735, protecting the sites for the next 20 years. To our knowledge, this is the first time BLM lands have been withdrawn by the Department of Interior to protect bats. Several key individuals working on this years-long effort had been citizen scientists who moved on to become professional biologists.
As a bat biologist with a deep interest in ecological and conservation education, I am impressed at how much citizen-science projects such as the Bats/Inactive Mines Project teach their volunteers. BIMP, of course, was not designed as an educational program. It was created by biologists searching for a way to accomplish ambitious conservation goals on a very limited budget. In that, the project certainly succeeded. The fact that the volunteers learned so much about science and conservation was a substantial bonus.
Over the years, BIMP grew into the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s leading volunteer project in terms of volunteer hours. From 1991 through 2009, BIMP’s citizen scientists conducted more than 2,500 surveys throughout Colorado. They helped wildlife and conservation biologists identify some 1,200 bat roosts in abandoned mines, 400 of which were occupied by species of conservation concern. Over two decades, BIMP volunteers donated more than 50,000 hours of their own time, saving the Colorado Division of Wildlife roughly $750,000.
Recently Colorado’s wildlife agency has undergone reorganization, and the bat-survey work at abandoned mines was transferred from the Colorado Division of Wildlife to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. The BIMP volunteer program has been discontinued, at least temporarily, and its future is unclear.
But because of it, hundreds of Colorado citizens are now amateur and even professional bat biologists committed to bat conservation. These volunteers have proven the power of citizen science to not only provide scientific data at reasonable cost, but to build a dedicated community of conservationists with invaluable knowledge, skills and experience. Such efforts can help us achieve critical conservation goals, some of which might not be possible, or even considered, without the involvement and informal education of citizen scientists.
MARK A. HAYES is a researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Colorado at Denver. He studies the ecology of bats and their roosting environments.
This article is dedicated to the many volunteer citizen scientists who have helped protect bat habitat in Colorado and to their leader, Kirk Navo. Without their efforts over many years, much less would have been accomplished.