Throughout the years-long bickering over the future of the Dillsboro Dam, the little brown bats that spent the summer in the dam’s powerhouse had no voice.
Each April, the little browns would return to the Tuckaseegee from their winter homes in caves and mines throughout the region in order to mate and enjoy the bounty of insects the river furnished. They established a burgeoning colony in the dam’s old powerhouse, which offered the perfect warm, dry shelter.
“That was an ideal place for them by the dam,” said Mark Cantrell, field biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “With the powerhouse and the food sources on the river, it was just about perfect.”
The powerhouse was demolished along with the dam this winter.
Cantrell worked with biologists from Duke Energy to create mitigation plans for the different species of birds, bats, and fish affected by the radical overnight change. The idea of putting in bat boxes to replace the demolished powerhouse roost was Cantrell’s.
Duke erected four bat houses to accommodate the estimated 500 bats that colonized the powerhouse. Each four-compartment bat box has the capacity to accommodate about 250 bats. They are patterned after recommendations from Bat Conservation International.
T.J. Walker, the owner of the Dillsboro Inn perched on the river shore where the dam once stood, is also coping with the radical change in the landscape. Walker initially opposed Duke’s plan to take out the dam, but now he says he’s pleased to see the Tuckaseegee flowing wild and free beneath the deck of his inn. But Walker is worried about the bats.
“For as many bats as were in there, there are not enough houses,” Walker said. Walker doesn’t see how the boxes, roughly the size of a television set, will hold as many bats as biologists say they will.
Walker is not just a casual observer of the nocturnal hunters. He counts on them to keep the riverfront free of mosquitoes.
“We love the bats. They do pest control,” Walker said. “They make Dillsboro’s waterfront special. Our customers love looking at the bats. We don’t have a mosquito problem.”
Walker recently bought three additional bat houses himself because he has been worried by the sight of the bats swarming the site where the powerhouse once stood.
Cantrell believes there’s plenty of room for the Dillsboro bat colony in the new houses, but it will take them time to set up new roosts.
“I expect the bats to utilize the houses. They will come back,” Cantrell said. “Most bats will come back to an area like that. They’ll be a little surprised at first, but then they’ll start looking for other places nearby.”
Walker was concerned that the bat houses weren’t placed in close proximity to where the old powerhouse was, but are a quarter mile or more away. Cantrell believe the bats will find the houses, however.
Cantrell said the bat houses will be monitored for the next two years to see how well the bats have adjusted to the new surroundings. For both T.J. Walker and the bats, this spring involves more than just the normal change of seasons.
Becky Johnson contributed to this article.
In the spring, little brown bats form huge nursery colonies like the one observed at Dillsboro. A nursery colony may have thousands of bats in it. Maternity colonies are commonly found in warm sites in buildings or other structures and can occasionally be found in hollow trees. The female little brown bat gives birth to only one baby a year.