BREWER, Maine — When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided this year to list the northern long-eared bat as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, state planners working on the Interstate 395-Route 9 connector were tasked with ensuring no harm would come to the animals.
“[The Federal Highway Administration] determined that that Section 7 consultation for the bat must be completed prior to the issuance of the Record of Decision,” Nathan Howard of the Maine Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Planning said in a Thursday email update about the estimated $61 million connector project.
The Record of Decision is the final step in the environmental impact statement process and identifies the selected alternative, presents the basis for the decision, identifies alternatives considered, specifies the “environmentally preferable alternative” and provides information to avoid, minimize and compensate for environmental impacts, the state Department of Transportation’s I-395-Route 9 connector website states.
Section 7 requires that federal agencies develop a conservation program for listed species and that they avoid actions that will further harm species and their critical habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website states.
The bat, which has dwindling numbers primarily because of white-nose syndrome, was listed as threatened April 2. The disease has killed millions of bats throughout the United States in less than a decade.
White-nose syndrome first was discovered in the U.S. in 2006 in a cave in New York, and since has spread rapidly, killing more than 5.7 million bats and approximately 80 percent of the bat population in the northeastern part of the country.
Named for the white fungus that appears on the muzzle of infected bats, white-nose syndrome kills bats as they hibernate during the winter.
Maine appeared to be insulated from the disease until spring 2011, when biologists found white fungus growing on bats in two caves in Oxford County. Since then, three bat species in Maine — little brown bats, northern long-eared bats and eastern small-footed bats — have seen somewhere between 80 and 100 percent declines in their populations because of white-nose syndrome, according to a previously published report.
The connector is envisioned as a means to ease heavy truck traffic between the Canadian Maritimes and the U.S. federal highway system. When I-395 was extended to Brewer and the Veterans Memorial Bridge was constructed, much of the truck traffic that had used Route 9 in Eddington to connect from Canada to Brewer started using Route 46 as a connector, which prompted residents in 2000 to ask the state Department of Transportation to build an alternative route.
The state’s preferred route would extend I-395 where it ends at Wilson Street and would roughly follow the Holden-Brewer line until entering Eddington and connecting with 4.5 miles of rebuilt Route 9.
The state Department of Transportation successfully amended its three-year work plan, unveiled in January, by adding money for the planned connector, requested through an amendment issued earlier this year, Howard said.
“[The Federal Highway Administration] approved the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) Amendment for the I-395/Route 9 Connector on November 9, 2015,” Howard said. “The Amendment adds $250,000 to the STIP for Preliminary Engineering (Design) and Right-of-Way for the Connector project.”
BDN writer Aislinn Sarnacki contributed to this report.