Wildlife Wrinkle

JOHNSTOWN – The northern long-eared bat has emerged as a factor in Fulton County’s study to build a “connector” highway from Fultonville to Johnstown.

“Taxpayers wonder why it takes so long to complete public projects,” said Fulton County Planning Director James Mraz. “This is just an example.”

The highway study will have to include a review of whether the project could affect a northern long-eared bat habitat, Mraz said. The habitats are known to be in New York and other eastern states, as well as other parts of the country.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in October designated the northern long-eared bat as a potential endangered species. As a result, projects such as a new highway have to spend money to study the possible habitats, Mraz said.

“It’s simply another regulation issue we’ll have to deal with,” Mraz said.

The county is studying a possible state Thruway “connector” highway heading north from Montgomery County. The possible 3.5-mile highway for trucks and other vehicles would run from the Thruway in Fultonville north to an area near the Johnstown Industrial Park, bypassing the villages of Fultonville and Fonda.

County officials say the highway could spur economic development.

Fulton County supervisors in February authorized a contract with M.J. Engineering and Land Surveying of Clifton Park to conduct the highway study. The cost is not to exceed $492,500.

Mraz recently attended meetings with M.J. Engineering to discuss the study.

Mraz said that in January 2010, the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz., petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting the northern long-eared bat be classified as endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Mraz said the primary threat to the northern long-eared bat is a disease known as white-nose syndrome. He said bat populations have declined 99 percent since the syndrome was first observed in 2006.

Mraz said any project that disturbs more than one acre of land, involves cutting down more than 10 trees or involves use of federal money will require hiring a wildlife biologist to conduct a bat habitat analysis.

Mraz said it is too early to tell whether protection of the northern long-eared bat’s habitat will be a barrier to the connector highway project. Nevertheless, he said additional costs and project time can be incurred.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the northern long-eared bat is distinguished by its long ears.

Georgia Parham, an Indiana-based spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, said federal action involving the protection of animals doesn’t necessarily hamper a project.

“In general terms, a lot of times, we’re asked if the endangered-species list will stop a project,” Parham said. “That answer is, most of the time, no.”

Parham said in many projects, especially those that involve federal money like the connector project, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service works closely with the local municipality and developer involved. She said a consultant will make recommendations, such as whether trees need need to be cut a certain length as to not disturb the habitat of an animal.

“The process is there to kind of negotiate how these projects move forward,” Parham said.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says in addition to white-nose syndrome, other threats to the northern long-eared bat include “wind energy development, habitat destruction or disturbance to hibernating and summer habitat, climate change and contaminants.”

“If it’s a new law, we’ll comply with it,” said Gloversville 3rd Ward Supervisor Michael F. Gendron, chairman of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors’ Economic Development and Environment Committee.

He said the issue with the northern long-eared bat is analogous to when municipalities and developers have to meet certain regulations dealing with historical structures.

“I don’t see it as a threat to the [connector highway] project,” Gendron said. “I see it as one more thing on a list of compliance issues.”

Fulton County in 2012 accepted a $400,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation, Community and System Preservation Program to pay for an engineer to study the feasibility and cost of constructing a new road. The county’s 2014 capital budget contains a $100,000 appropriation as the local share of the cost.

Mraz said M.J. Engineering is developing base mapping, conducting topographic mapping, collecting traffic-accident data from the state Department of Transportation, obtaining GIS parcel data and obtaining various environmental data.

Once all the mapping is completed and data collected, the firm will begin to identify alternative route options, Mraz said.

The study area for the connector highway is within Montgomery and Fulton counties. The area includes portions of the villages of Fonda and Fultonville, the towns of Mohawk and Johnstown, and the cities of Johnstown and Gloversville.

More information on the connector highway project can be obtained by visiting its website at fondaconnector.com.

“The intent of the study is to provide a safe and more efficient vehicular connection from the various commercial and industrial areas located in Montgomery and Fulton counties,” the website says. “Currently, trucks and vehicles requiring access to these industrial areas must navigate through the villages of Fonda and Fultonville along NY Route 30A, creating noise, odor and safety impacts. The Fonda Connector Study will not only examine alternative routes, but will also evaluate the potential impacts and benefits of the alternative routes.”

Michael Anich can be reached at manich@leaderherald.com.