They’re netting bats by night and studying eagles from helicopters.

Several organizations, including Duke Energy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, are working on a 40-year survey of several species along the Catawba and Wateree rivers.

Duke’s McGuire Nuclear Station site off Lake Norman is one of 25 sites where experts are counting different threatened or endangered species. Chief among these is a lengthy look at bats in the area.

The sites being studied include a mixture of property owned by Duke, state parks and privately owned property.

“We are in the third year of a 40-year study,” Duke threatened and endangered species biologist Will Ricks said. “After the first five years where we do it each and every year, it’s every other year after that. The first five years is a very intensive study.”

The study area stretches along the rivers from Morganton and Hickory to Lake Norman and Charlotte down to South Carolina near Columbia.

“This area that we’re surveying for a number of these species hasn’t been largely surveyed in the past,” Ricks said. “All waterways are important, but it’s (a) really important waterway for North and South Carolina. There are a lot of stakeholders in this area as well for an area that hasn’t been surveyed as much. You start in the Morganton and Hickory area down through Charlotte.”

Ricks figures out how to manage endangered and threatened species throughout Duke’s right of ways and facilities. Those species range from bats and bald eagles to freshwater mussels and fish to plants.

Ricks said the methodology of the survey depended on the type of flora and fauna. Eagle nests, with adults, young and eggs are counted by biologists in helicopters. Plant stems or flowers are counted. Bat calls are recorded or scientists catch those in large nets stretched between two poles and quickly make note of their species and characteristics before releasing them.

The survey fulfills a requirement in Duke’s license allowing the company to operate hydroelectric power plants on the Catawba and Wateree rivers.

“Rivers are a public resource, and serve a variety of functions for a variety of stakeholders, from anglers and paddlers, to endangered species,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Gary Peeples said via email. “When a private company, such as Duke, wants to significantly alter a river by operating a hydropower facility, they are required to get a license to operate such a facility from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Part of that process is that impacts to other uses and stakeholders must be considered.”

Peeples said the survey lasts the length of Duke’s license with the purpose of making sure wildlife and fish are protected.

“A really important part of these surveys is the trend data,” Ricks, the Duke biologist, said. “It’s important to know it (a species) is there, but we need to know is it increasing and everything’s going great or potentially, if it’s declining, is there something different we could do management-wise to ensure that it can increase again.”

It’s particularly important to document the populations of bats because some bat species’ populations have plummeted recently. Ricks said white nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus found in caves in the mountains where bats may hibernate for the winter, is the cause of the population drop. Ricks said the fungus drains the bats of the fat they’d stored for hibernation.

For the last three summers, biologists have been recording bat calls and catching the flying mammals in mist nets at night to document their species, health and the habitat the creature was found in. They then share that information with government agencies and wildlife organizations.

“A big thing with bats, there’s no doubt, and I’ve gone to many bat meetings, is that there is a major need for more research, and we need to conduct more research,” Ricks said. “We need to ask the right questions. We need to have the right design, and we feel 100% along with our partners that we’re achieving that in this study. In 10 years, we’ll know a lot more, but we’re kind of in a time where we’re just working through some research projects and asking the right questions and starting to get some answers.”

Ricks said after the fifth year of the survey, agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will help plan the next part of the survey.

“All this work will continue for the next 40 years and the next 40 years,” Ricks said. “It’s kind of exciting for us to be on some of the beginning first surveys of some of these areas. It’s really interesting.”

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