ELCO — Tucked back into the woods at the mouth of a mine, miles from any main road, was an unusual sight — a ceremonial key was given for an abandoned silica mine that last saw action in 1978.
A dozen or so people clapped Wednesday as Unimin President and CEO Campbell Jones handed the oversized key to Rob Mies, executive director and co-founder of the Organization for Bat Conservation in Pontiac, Michigan. A deal that was decades in the making came to a close at the mouth of the old Magazine Mine — it will now be the protected home of more than 45,000 endangered Indiana Bats.
In his remarks during the ceremony, Jones said while his company is responsible for industrial mineral mining, they also have another goal to “advance life.” He said they also realize they are more stewards than owners of the land that they mine.
“It is a privilege to be responsible for land," Jones said. "We see it as just a short period of time.”
Mies said he is thrilled to take ownership of the site. He said his organization has been involved in the project to conserve the bats at the mine for just a short period of time comparatively and praised the work of Unimin.
“This is an amazing conservation effort that really happened because Unimin was thinking forward,” Mies said.
Doug Losee, vice president of environmental affairs for Unimin, echoed Jones’ statement, saying that because of the company’s “ethic of sustainability,” they have given the Magazine Mine project the attention it needed.
“We have a lot of land under our stewardship and care so we take that responsibility seriously and this donation of the Magazine Mine is kind of the culmination of 20 years of that type of stewardship and responsibility,” he said.
Mies said that on top of being home to such a large population of endangered bats, Magazine Mine also has the potential to be a great place for scientific study. He said White Nose Syndrome — a white fungus that grows on the nose of bats, causing irritation that wakes them from hibernation and at times leads to starvation — has been plaguing the United States for more than a decade. However, silica mines like Magazine, have been home to bat populations that have seen minimal effects from the fungus.
“We are excited because this is a potential safe haven for our bats in this area that we need,” he said.
The need for bats is great Mies said, particularly in a region as agriculturally-driven as Southern Illinois.
“In the ecosystem, they eat moths and beetles that destroy our crops, our gardens and our beautiful forests,” he said.
Mies admitted that caring for a mine — active or dormant — is no easy task, but OBC has a network of partners who will help.
“The Organization for Bat Conservation is going to be working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and other people who are especially concerned about bats and where they hibernate to make sure we have the on-the-ground boots and the funding to be able to make sure that this stays open, accessible and protected for the bats,” Mies said.
One such partner is Joe Kath, endangered species program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He said the first order of business will be to help mitigate erosion damage inside and outside of the mine. He said this will help ensure there will be an opening for the bats to come and go from.
Kath said one thing that makes the silica mine so suitable for bat hibernation, over, say, a coal mine, is because of its steady temperatures. He said such mines have steady temperatures from 39 to 46 degrees fahrenheit year-round — coal mines are usually warmer, which is less suitable for bat hibernation.
Kath said Magazine Mine’s Indiana Bat population has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years.
Kath said when the mine was first surveyed in 1997 or 1998, there were about 9,000. He said in the most recent survey there were more than 45,000. Kath said it is estimated that the Magazine Mine location houses about 12 percent of all the Indiana Bats in North America, which is a big deal.
Kath has worked with endangered species for his entire 23-year DNR career and is thrilled to get to work with Mies and the OBC. However, he is also just thankful to maintain the magazine mine both for the bats as well as for science.
“It’s just such a unique resource to have,” he said.