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Game Commission biologist takes on role as Westmoreland land trust board member

Jeff Himler
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Game Commission diversity biologist Tammy Colt sits for a portrait on Sept. 28, 2016 at a wetlands restoration that she planned. The wetlands is owned by the Loyalhanna Watershed Association and was funded the the game commission.
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Tammy Colt bands a peregrine falcon chick under the Westinghouse Bridge in East Pittsburgh.
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Tammy Colt traps and bands wood ducks at Beaver Run Reservoir.
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Tammy Colt bands geese with waterfowl biologist Jeremy Stempka.

Tammy Colt’s duties for the Pennsylvania Game Commission take her on side roads at night searching for bat signals.

A wildlife diversity biologist for the commission’s southwest region, the Bolivar resident roams across Westmoreland County and nine others to track about 100 bird and mammal species state officials have prioritized as most in need of conservation.

Colt mounts acoustic equipment on her truck to record the calls of the little brown and tri-colored bats — among six types of bat and 19 mammal species targeted for conservation in the 2015-25 update of the state’s Wildlife Action Plan.

It takes Colt two hours to complete her route, driving about 20 mph.

“We try not to go any slower or faster,” she said.

With a software program and input from an expert colleague, Colt can identify the about 100 bat sounds among the noises she records and can distinguish the various species.

In September 2005, when Colt was hired, the little brown bat wasn’t listed in the inaugural 10-year action plan.

“The bat population was going up and then white-nose hit,” she said, referring to a fungal infection that hit the species. “White-nose kills 90 to 95 percent of a colony once it’s in.”

Colt relies on her ears and eyes to keep tabs on other flying species, with a play list of recorded bird songs as a reference.

“I do a lot of bird surveys in May and June,” she said. “I ought to feel guilty — I’m getting paid to birdwatch.”

Colt, 50, has pushed herself to new heights for her job. Though she confesses that heights make her uneasy, she’s been out on a ledge near the top of Pittsburgh’s Gulf Tower to band nesting peregrine falcons and has dropped in a bucket truck to the underside of the Westinghouse Bridge to band a peregrine chick.

Encountering wildlife in the field is one of the most exciting aspects of Colt’s job.

“It’s those extras we run into,” she said. “There are so many cool things out there.”

One of the most important aspects of Colt’s job doesn’t involve direct contact with wildlife. She manages habitats, helping owners of wooded land promote vegetation that will support threatened species.

Colt has taken part in one of the most extreme forms of habitat management — prescribed fires set on state gamelands — which required training where she had to carry a 45-pound backpack for three miles in 45 minutes.

Colt, who has a master’s degree in biology, is bringing the experience she’s gained with the Game Commission to a new volunteer role — board member of the Westmoreland Land Trust. Her past includes stints as an environmental educator at Powdermill Nature Reserve, a board member with the Loyalhanna Watershed Association, where she continues as an adviser, and president of the Pennsylvania chapter of The Wildlife Society.

Colt will serve through 2019 with the Land Trust, which has partnered with other organizations to conserve about 235 acres in six municipalities.

Chairman Chuck Duritsa of Hempfield said the trust was looking to fill a board vacancy with an energetic candidate hailing from an unrepresented section of the county. Colt, he said, “fit both bills.”

The trust has to “make land-management decisions, and we need to have policies in place for that. I’m glad to be able to bring that experience to the board,” Colt said.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622 or [email protected].

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