Weighing in at one-quarter of an ounce—the equivalent of three pennies—the tiny Indiana bat is a big deal in Ohio. The rare, insect-eating bats’ population has dropped 50 percent in the last 30 years, in part due to disturbances to their habitat from road expansion and other development. Motivated by the need to protect the endangered bat’s habitat and advance the state’s transportation projects, federal and state agencies working in Ohio decided to join forces.
In 2010, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) came together to develop a new statewide agreement that would protect the Indiana bat as well as improve the efficiency of new transportation projects in the state. Although all three agencies recognized the importance of protecting the Indiana bat and that the state’s transportation projects needed to progress, after two years of negotiations, the interagency team hit a wall.
“We had nowhere else to go, we spent so much time getting nowhere and we were out of options,” said Matt Perlik, assistant environmental administrator at ODOT, who worked on the negotiations. Perlik pointed out that none of the agencies wanted to push an agreement through litigation. “We needed something to be mutually beneficial, the only way was a collaborative approach. So we hired a third-party to take us by the hand and guide us through the process.”
In 2014, ODOT hired the Udall Foundation’s U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, now called the John S. McCain III National Center for Environmental Conflict Resolution (National Center or NCECR), to help facilitate the process for finding a mutually beneficial agreement between ODOT and USFWS, the two agencies working on the ground. The FHWA was crucial in originally bringing all the agencies together; however, they encouraged ODOT and USFWS to work through the details of linking Ohio-specific transportation projects and Indiana bat protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The long-term facilitation helped the agencies understand each other’s interests, smooth rough relationships between team members, improve communications, and organize deliverables without taking sides or forcing an agreement. To further complicate the negotiations, the Northern long-eared bat, which is also located in Ohio, was listed under the ESA in 2015. The team agreed to address both species of bat in the agreement.
“Prior to the National Center getting involved, the meetings between the agencies had become contentious, with individuals on all sides feeling unheard and disrespected. In that type of environment, folks tend to get stuck in a loop, arguing the same points over and over,” said Karen Hallberg, biologist with the USFWS. “The greatest benefit was having the National Center staff who understood the agency-specific policies and positions, who established ground rules, and enforced them in a non-threatening manner… and smoothed ruffled feathers when needed.”
With about 400 transportation projects requiring tree removal in Ohio annually, evaluating projects for their potential impact on bats on a case-by-case basis is not only time consuming, but it can cost up to $20,000 per project. The collaborative state-wide programmatic agreement allowed ODOT to understand which types of transportation projects would raise red flags for the USFWS and which would require measures to protect bat habitat.
None of the participants in this project had previous experience with facilitated processes, and prior to the National Center’s involvement, were under the impression that the facilitator would be the “decider.” Both agencies agreed they enjoyed learning how to communicate better, how to organize their collaborative process, and learning how to break through their “endless argument loop.”
“This had to be approached collaboratively. Neither agency was forced to do this, so it is important that everyone was getting what they needed. Without a standardized agreement, the cost and work required for each project would be tiring,” said Megan Michael, with ODOT. She said prior to the National Center stepping in to facilitate the process she didn’t feel heard and that contrasting office cultures made progress challenging. Having a neutral third-party involved helped to restate everyone’s needs, highlight shared goals, and get past sticking points. “Now, I am excited to be able to focus on conservation, and that is rewarding. As a biologist, I am very interested in that. Through this process, our agreement ended up being better than we had hoped.”
The Ohio agreement, now in the final stages, is so well-tailored to bats and transportation projects, certain aspects of it may become a model for a rangewide agreement that will help guide how transportation agencies and the USFWS address impacts to bats in 20 states, from Maryland to Oklahoma.