This story was first published on May 18, 2018
Bats and songbirds are in trouble in Pennsylvania. The government has turned to private landowners to help protect their habitat. Here’s the story of one those landowners.
More than 70 percent of land in Pennsylvania is privately owned. Each year, with help from state and federal agency biologists, about 400 landowners manage their land in ways that help threatened and endangered species. Tom Belinda is one of them. To find Belinda’s house in Williamsburg, PA, near Altoona, you wind through a small community of homes and fields along the river valley. After a nearly 2-mile long trek down a gravel driveway, the woods break open to a clearing. There sits Belinda’s mountain lodge made of logs.
MEETING TOM BELINDA
After a wet greeting from his two black Newfoundlands, Belinda leads me to the second story deck, which looks out over his 1,300 acres of wooded valley. Belinda and his wife bought this property 20 years ago. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contacted him about managing his land to improve habitat for endangered Indiana bats, he laughed. He was already providing a home for them.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, you guys want me to manage all this stuff for the woods….you guys can just come up under the poles of my house, and I can show right where they’re at, every day,’” he remembers.
LISTEN: “How This Landowner is Helping to Protect Endangered Species”
But as he looked into it more, Belinda says, managing his land for bat habitat made sense. His property is surrounded by state game lands and other private property which is a corridor of nearly 21,000 acres of protected bat habitat.
THE BAT CAVE
From his deck, Belinda points out the cave where these tiny mouse-eared bats, weighing as little as 3 pennies, hibernate in the winter. A 2015 survey of that bat cave by the Natural Resources Conservation Service found the number of bats had dropped from 32,000 to just 70.
Indiana bat populations have reached near-extinction levels, primarily because of habitat loss and also because of a fungal infection called white nose syndrome. It was classified as an endangered species in 1973. Belinda saw an opportunity to help, and to secure the future of his property.
“I looked at my wife one day and I said, ‘We’re never going to develop this,’” Belinda recounts. “‘Then why not just put it in this program? At least when we’re dead and gone, nobody can do it. So now it stays like this forever.’”
Belinda put more than half of the property into a conservation easement, which means the land can never be developed, even if it’s sold. He gets tax breaks for it, too.
CUTTING SMALLER TREES, TO PROMOTE THE TREES THAT BATS LIKE
Belinda takes me out in a small off-road vehicle to show me how he’s managed the land for bats over the past five years. We drive down some rocky pathways into the valley, to the bat area, where he’s trying to get the trees the grow bigger.
In summer, as many as 100 female Indiana bats form maternity colonies. Each female raises a single pup each year. They prefer to roost under the warm, shaggy bark of large trees like hickory and ash. That’s why Belinda has cleared smaller trees in this area. He points out a larger one that remains.
“We’re going to try to grow it quicker than what it normally would,” he says. “The only way to do that is to remove all the competition.”
CREATING SUNLIGHT FOR CERULEAN WARBLERS
We head to another spot where Belinda has been thinning out the forest. In recent years, he started managing an additional 55 acres specifically to help protect a small, blue, migratory songbird called the cerulean warbler. Its population dropped 70 percent over last 50 years.
Belinda is trying to recreate lost cerulean habitat on his property. That means removing trees to create gaps in the forest canopy that will allow sunlight in, and growing small plants to create a robust understory that the birds like.
“See the sunlight?” he asks. “Every one of those sunbeam holes is going to grow something.”
Belinda wants that sunshine to help bushes and grapevines grow. They attract the insects that ceruleans eat. But there’s still a problem: invasive species like multi-flora rose and especially Japanese barberry. Both are ornamentals people buy to look pretty in their yards, but can quickly turn into a thick mass that covers the forest floor.
“Nothing else can grow here,” he says. “That’s all nasty stuff that needs to go.”
Belinda spends a lot of time and money spraying pesticides to get rid of the barberry. The Natural Resources Conservation Service shares his costs. Last year, the agency paid Pennsylvania landowners nearly a quarter of a million dollars to remove invasive plants.
As the sun goes down, we head back to Belinda’s house, and look out over the deck. One by one, small bats slip out from the woodwork and into the night.
“There’s another one, did you see it?,” he says as he points up into the eaves of his roof. “See, that came out right here.”
Belinda says they’re headed down the valley, toward the river to eat insects. His government partners say efforts by private land stewards like Belinda are giving the bats a chance to survive in the forests of Pennsylvania.
Are you a Pennsylvania landowner interested in making your property more attractive to wildlife? There’s a team of Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists who can help. They even make house-calls! More info here.
Photo (top): Tom Belinda on the deck of his house in Williamsburg, PA. Credit: Julie Grant