Rare bats found in Aspen-area mine
ASPEN -One of the largest populations in Colorado – and possibly all of the western United States – of an imperiled species of bat has been found in the Crystal River Valley, according to the U.S. Forest Service.The Townsend’s big-eared bat is using an old mine that tapped into a natural cave as a roosting habitat, said wildlife biologist Phil Nyland of the Aspen Ranger District. He would not confirm just how many bats are living there.Studies are under way to determine how often during the year the bats use the Maree Love mine, located in the lower slopes of Mount Sopris near the Penny Hot Springs. A consultant is preparing an official report about the mine’s history for the Forest Service, but preliminary information suggests the Maree Love was a gold mine worked in the late 1880s. It apparently was abandoned for a period before it was tapped again for lead and zinc.
The mine’s entrance ways, or adits, are driven horizontally into the mountainside, protrude into a hot vapor cave.The mine was rediscovered by Robert Congdon decades after it was closed. Congdon, a former coal miner who continues to explore for minerals, holds unpatented mining claims that give him access to the Maree Love’s underground minerals. The Forest Service controls the surface rights.The agency in 2004 ordered Congdon to cease and desist all mining activities and preparatory work so it could perform a historical inventory and bat habitat study of the Maree Love; the order is still in place, according to Aspen District Ranger Bill Westbrook.Nyland said bat experts are few and far between so there is still a lot to be learned about this colony. The Townsend’s big-eared bat is considered a “species of viability concern” by the federal government because its habitat in mines and caves is being destroyed, Nyland said.They have a fight or flight instinct, he said, so when they are disturbed during winter hibernation they will fly out of the cave and freeze to death.
Nyland said that although the Maree Love mine has been mapped by spelunkers and explored by Congdon, he isn’t accusing anyone of necessarily disturbing the bats. In fact, Congdon has assisted with the study of the bats, Westbrook said.Adult Townsend big-eared bats have a body length of only about 4 inches. However, their ears stick up 1 1/2 inches and their wingspan is about 10 inches. They are excellent fliers that feed mostly on moths.They are solitary creatures, except in summer when females will congregate in maternity roosts, according to material from the Colorado Division of Wildlife.Nyland said research also shows the bats will hibernate together in winter. “They will huddle up for body heat,” he said.
The government has accused Congdon of putting historic artifacts and natural resources at risk by rooting around in the old mine. Congdon counters that it is the U.S. Forest Service that is being irresponsible by letting items like ore cars, rails and hand tools rot without making an effort at historic preservation. Congdon was ordered in 2004 to cease and desist all activities at the mine after the Forest Service discovered he cleared roads to the site, dug the collapsed entrances and rebuilt a collapsed shed outside the mine using old wood and new lumber.Congdon said he felt the Forest Service used heavy-handed tactics that were out of line. He said he was charged with interfering with a federal officer after he went into his house and came back with a video camera to record the agency’s actions.”I feel like Big Brother is alive and well, and they’ve got guns,” Congdon said.