Safeguarding uranium mines to protect humans and bats

02.14.22

By Kristen Pope

Throughout the western U.S., thousands of former uranium mines lay abandoned and Bat Conservation International (BCI) is working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Defense-Related Uranium Mine (DRUM) program to safeguard these mines for humans and bats.

Members of BCI’s Subterranean Team move through conducting an internal survey of an abandoned uranium mine on the Colorado Plateau. Notice the safety gear used by the crew to survey the site, Bill Hatcher

The sites can be dangerous to humans, but they can provide high-quality habitat for bats, so BCI is working to safeguard them using a number of methods, including bat-friendly gates that prohibit unauthorized human entry but allow bats to pass freely. 

The DRUM program involves more than 4,200 mines, which are mainly located in the western U.S. Many of the mines are located on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, while others are on federal, state, tribal, or private land. BCI conducts cultural and biological surveys, collects data, and maps the mines. Team members look for signs of bats like scratches, guano stains, insect parts, and bats—Townsend’s big-eared bats (Corynorhinus townsendii) are one of the most common mine-roosting bats. BCI also ensures compliance with environmental regulations before ultimately selecting a method and safeguarding the mines.

One question that has come up over the years is whether the radiation in the mines could be hazardous to bats. BCI and the BLM partnered with Northern Arizona University to conduct a study to answer this question. They found that in the summer, bats would generally roost high in the mines, above the radon, which was at low levels. In the winter, radon would rise higher, but the bats were hibernating and their respiratory rate was so low, so it didn’t harm them.

Townsend’s big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii) is commonly found in abandoned mines, Michael Durham/Minden Pictures

“These sites do not pose a significant hazard to bats any more than limestone caves with high levels of radon do,” says Jason Corbett, BCI’s Director of Habitat Protection and Restoration.

This year, BCI is working on numerous DRUM projects throughout the west, including numerous ones in Colorado and two larger-scale ones in Utah, as well as continuing work in New Mexico.

“2022 is an exciting year,” Corbett says. “We have a lot of projects queued up, and there is a lot of positive energy around that. All of us are looking forward to making significant headway this year on these projects.”