NEW MILFORD — It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to say that many people are afraid of bats.

Not so workers at Torrington-based O&G Industries. The company was recently recognized by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for its efforts to save the bat population at one of its quarries in New Milford. The winged animal of myth and lore has been hard hit in recent years by what is known as white-nose syndrome, a fungus that has decimated many bat colonies in Connecticut and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada.

A brown bat hibernaculum was constructed at the company’s New Milford quarry in hopes of preserving a population of bats that overwinter there, while protecting them from white-nose syndrome. According to the DEEP, the New Milford quarry is currently one of the few disease-free habitats that remain in the state.

The new bat habitat In New Milford is a 40-foot-long tunnel into limestone measuring six feet high and seven feet wide that runs into an underground chamber 17 feet wide, 10 feet deep and 15 feet high.

“O and G has always been receptive to doing what they can to help us protect wildlife resources, not just at their location in New Milford, but at their other properties as well,” said Jenny Dickson, supervising wildlife biologist for DEEP wildlife diversity and outreach programs. “It has been my experience that as a company, O & G sees the value in all of our natural resources and in trying to operate in ways that consider sustainability. They are willing to look forward and plan for habitat restoration or natural succession, and they aren’t afraid to try novel approaches to conservation challenges.”

Dickson said that while the cave is still new it is well designed to meet the specific needs of bats during the winter. Workers continue to make minor adjustments to airflow and internal temperature, “I think it will meet the needs of bats well. Bats tend to be very particular about the micro-habitat of sites they use and when they find something that works, they will use the same location for decades. They are also very curious and will explore this new site and initially test it out before or after hibernation. We plan to monitor the site and make adjustments as needed.”

Bats in Connecticut, and throughout much of the U.S. and Canada have been severely impacted by white-nose syndrome.

It’s an illness caused by a non-native, cold-loving fungus (pseudogymnoascus destructans or Pd) that impacts the bats’ bioenergetics during hibernation, causing them to burn stored body fat and also damaging their wing membranes.

The malady will cause the bats to wake up early and often leave the sites they hibernate in to seek food. As there are not many insects for them to eat in the middle of the winter most bats will die.

“Populations for most of our cave bat species have declined by 95 percent or more since we first documented WNS in Connecticut in 2008,” reported Dickson. “The most severely impacted species has been the northern long-eared bat. This species was once ubiquitous and breeding populations were found statewide. Connecticut had a very sizable wintering population as well.” Today, this bat is state endangered, Federally threatened, and has virtually disappeared from the state.

“We have also seen very dramatic declines in the populations of tri-colored and little brown bats,” Dickson said. “While big brown bat populations like those in New Milford, have declined too, their declines have been more modest and typically fall in the 30 to 40 percent range. Taken on its own, that kind of decline in a wildlife population would be alarming. But when other bat species have declined by over 95 percent, it actually seems like good news.”

Dickson called the New Milford quarry “an interesting location.” She added, “We were concerned early on that it might have been impacted by WNS, but tests of the soil and swabs of the bats indicated the site is not impacted in the same way most Connecticut hibernacula have been.”

Studies have shown that the site is used predominantly by big brown bats. While this bat is impacted by WNS, mortality rates have been much lower than in other bat species.

“Species composition has no doubt helped this site to retain a pretty stable population when those at most other sites have crashed. This is something we are closely monitoring and keeping our fingers crossed that nothing changes.”

Ken Faroni, O&G’s director of planning and permits, explained that the company’s New Milford Quarry property is approximately 347 acres.

The limestone quarry has been in existence since the late 1800s, and some of the earliest rock quarrying resulted in the development of a tunnel used to mine and extract rock within a specific portion of the property.

Earlier mining activity was eventually abandoned and the tunnel evolved over time to serve as a bat hibernaculum.

Said Faroni, “O&G has developed a comprehensive long term phased mining and reclamation plan for the entire property. The existing tunnel will ultimately be removed as working rock faces are advanced. O&G wanted to be proactive and develop an alternative hibernaculum (habitat) well in advance of this phased mining.”

He continued, “Although our mining operations won’t reach the current habitat for another decade, we felt it was important to be proactive. The sooner we built the new habitat the sooner the bats may discover it. In fact, one bat was identified in the newly constructed hibernaculum in December.”

A mining engineer, Gary Petersen of Rock Mechanics of Ishpeming, Michigan, was retained to develop the specific design of the tunnel and chamber, working from a “prototype” design of an artificial bat hibernaculum developed by DEEP’s Wildlife Division. He also assisted in the location of the new hibernaculum. Cowan & Company, Inc. from Birmingham, Alabama, was the mining contractor responsible for the actual drilling, blasting and mucking out of the shot rock. DEEP wildlife biologists also assisted with the basic design and general location of the new hibernaculum. The design took several months to complete and actual field work took approximately six weeks.

“O&G has worked closely with DEEP wildlife biologists following our acquisition of the quarry property in 2006,” said Faroni. “In addition to providing an improved monitoring program for the existing bat hibernaculum, DEEP provided the basic design concept for the new bat hibernaculum.

Wildlife biologists were also consulted on the general location of the new hibernaculum, taking into consideration surrounding topography and aspect (slope orientation).”

Faroni said the biggest challenge faced during the project was the actual drilling and blasting near the surface to control fly rock and reduce the offsite impacts at detonation (ground vibration and air overpressure, i.e. noise) as the initial opening of the new tunnel was developed.

He added, “O&G is a proactive company and takes seriously our environmental stewardship responsibilities.”

“It’s a tremendous help for us and our conservation efforts for species that are declining as fast as our bats are, to have a partner like O&G step up and help,” said Dickson.

“What O&G is doing is critically important to conservation of numerous bat species as they try to recover from the syndrome.”