Clear trees in winter ahead of Lake County road projects? It’s all to protect this bat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reclassified the northern long-eared bat from threatened to endangered.

Road construction season is over, but crews in Lake County and elsewhere will be removing trees in the coming months for planned 2023 projects to protect a bat being decimated by a deadly fungal disease.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week issued a final ruling to reclassify the northern long-eared bat from threatened to endangered, prompting the Illinois Department of Transportation to issue new guidelines to protect the bat’s habitat.

Listed as threatened in 2015, the northern long-eared bat now faces extinction, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, because of the ongoing spread of white-nose syndrome.

The reclassification, effective Jan. 30, is an effort to conserve species before declines become irreversible, according to the agency.

“This means you will see LCDOT in more than just snowplows during the winter months,” said Alex Carr, spokesman for the Lake County Division of Transportation.

White-nose syndrome has infected 12 types of bats and killed millions of them. Northern long-eared bats have been among the hardest hit, with estimated declines of 97% or higher in affected populations. U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the deadly disease affects hibernating bats across North America.

In the summer, northern long-eared bats roost alone or in small colonies underneath bark or in cavities or crevices of live and dead trees. They mostly spend the winter hibernating in caves and abandoned mines, according to the agency.

So any tree clearing needed for road projects must be done in the winter, before northern long-eared bats start roosting in the trees.

“Crews will be actively preparing for projects ahead of what will be another busy spring and summer construction season in 2023,” Carr said.

Utility relocations will be included.

The IDOT guidance includes restrictions on when exactly trees can be cleared for transportation projects, as well as a new process for bridge and culvert work.

According to the new guidelines, trees 3 inches or more in diameter at breast height can’t be cleared between April 1 and Sept. 30. If a project is within 2.5 miles of a northern long-eared bat site, the clearing restriction is extended to Oct. 30.

The rules also call for a “bridge bat assessment” for any culvert or storm sewer work taller than 48 inches, and for work below the bridge deck surface or involving expansion joints.

Carr said the long-eared bat guidelines are different from other procedures because that bat can be found anywhere in Lake County. Northern long-eared bats are in 37 eastern and north-central states, including Illinois, Washington, D.C., and much of Canada.

Bats are critical to natural areas and contribute at least $3 billion annually to the U.S. agriculture economy through pest control and pollination, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

LCDOT routinely coordinates with agencies such as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on its projects to determine whether there are threatened and endangered species within project limits and to suggest ways to avoid or minimize disturbance, Carr said.

Agencies such as LCDOT already are following new procedures, Carr said. Residents can expect to see trees being cleared in the coming months rather than at the beginning of the construction season.

The guidelines affect all projects, Carr said. Some projects for which work could be happening this winter:

Mick Zawislak - Daily Herald Media Group

Mick Zawislak has covered Lake County for the Daily Herald since 2002