High season for Colorado’s biggest bat cave

Watch the flight of 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats in the San Luis Valley

A public-private partnership has helped ensure access to a viewing area near the Orient Mine bat roost, near Saguache, Colorado. PHOTO COURTESY COLORADO DIVISION OF WILDLIFE.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Public land managers and a land trust in the San Luis Valley have teamed up to ease public access to the Orient Mine bat roost in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, near Saguache, Colorado.

During July and August, about 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats make their summer roost in the former iron-ore mine. Just before dusk each evening, the bats — mostly males — fly out of the mine to begin their daily search for food. The column of bats during the out-flight continues for nearly an hour. Learn more about Colorado’s bats at the CDOW website.

A viewing area near the mine allows wildlife watchers to witness this daily event at Colorado’s largest bat colony. Entering the mine is prohibited. The Orient Land Trust and the Colorado Division of Wildlife worked in cooperation with the federal land managers to ensure public parking at the Black Canyon Trailhead. From there, it’s an easy hike to the  Orient Mine and bat roost site.

The land trust received a financial grant from the Division of Wildlife and Great Outdoors Colorado to ensure improved public access to the mine viewing area. The Orient Land Trust owns 1,800 acres in the area, including a working cattle ranch, the Valley View Hot Springs and the Orient Mine site. The Colorado Division of Wildlife owns 10 acres adjacent to the mine.

“This is a safe place for people to observe bats,” said Kirk Navo, a state conservation biologist and bat expert. “Entering old mines is dangerous for people. But also, disturbing bats in their sensitive habitat environments can cause problems for these animals.”

In other areas of the U.S., “white-nose syndrome” is killing bat colonies. The disease is caused by a fungus and appears as a white dusting around the muzzle and elsewhere on the bats. It was first found in bats in a cave in New York in 2006 and has been spreading south and west. It has been found in bats as close to Colorado as northwestern Oklahoma.

There is concern nationally that humans who explore caves and mines used by bats can inadvertently spread the spores that cause the disease. Navo said that’s not a concern at the Orient site because people are not allowed to enter the mine.

“The spores cannot be spread by viewing the out-flight. The fencing keeps people at a safe distance from the mine opening and there is no direct contact with bats,” Navo said.

Navo recommends that people stay out of mines and caves to prevent any inadvertent spreading of the fungus.

Through August, guides will be at the Black Canyon trailhead a few hours before dusk or about 5 p.m., Thursday through Sunday where they will lead tours to the viewing area. The trail is also open the other days of the week.

“This is a very unique and interesting glimpse of nature,” said Amy Trainer, land conservation specialist and former executive director of the Orient Land Trust. “The best viewing opportunities are during July and August. By mid-September the bats have left for the south and warmer weather.”

The trail can be accessed from Saguache County Road GG, which is located just north of the intersection of U.S. Highway 285 and Colorado Highway 17. To get to the trail go east on Saguache County Road GG and follow the signs to the BLM Black Canyon trailhead. The trail to the mine is just over a mile from the parking area and is a moderate walk. Hikers and backpackers can access the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness from the trailhead.


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