The Indiana bat weighs less than an ounce and is so small it is able to nest in the spaces between a tree trunk and its rotting bark.
It can also do what class-action lawsuits and full-throated protesters haven't been able to: stop Marcellus Shale drilling.
Energy firms are quizzed daily on their industry's impact on air and water used by humans, but the companies' rapid development must also take into account less sentient creatures.
Does that Greene County property sit atop bountiful shale gas reserves? Better make sure the endangered shortnose sturgeon doesn't swim in a nearby stream. Think that pasture would make a great place to lay pipeline? Check for the beleaguered snow trillium first.
Tracking Pennsylvania farmland for sensitive communities is part of the state permitting process for a Marcellus well, and it has fueled a cottage industry of ecological consultants trolling the hills for threatened wildlife and foliage to help companies avoid costly fines. The inspection process, which sometimes takes longer than actual drilling, has inspired some unlikely partnerships between gas firms drilling underground and the advocates interested in the life that's above it.
Legless creatures have long brought powerful industries to their knees. Take the snail darter. In 1973, the discovery of the paper clip-sized fish slowed construction of a Little Tennessee River dam, inspiring Congressional infighting and eventually forcing a Supreme Court decision that temporarily halted construction.
Forget worries about lease expirations. Chesapeake Energy hustled to complete a tree clearing in Beaver County last month before an eight-month moratorium went into effect allowing the Indiana bats to hibernate in peace. The Oklahoma City driller filed an injunction in district court forcing the tree-clearing to make the hibernation deadline or risk having to renegotiate the area's leases.
"The activity, as everyone knows, is quite fast-paced at the moment," said Mark A. Dilley, the founder and co-owner of MAD Scientist & Associates LLC, an ecological consulting business in Westerville, Ohio, that's worked with engineering firms on deep shale wells.
"They're looking to get the wells up, and that drives quick turnaround," he said.
Companies surveying a particular plot of land look the region up in the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory, which highlights threatened and endangered species in any given area. It's one of the first steps in preparing a well permit that's submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Companies have to work directly with the DEP on development greater than 5,160 acres or 2.8 miles in length, said Dan Maltese, vice president of ecological services at Robinson-based Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc. Shale gas operations comprise about 10 to 15 percent of the firm's business, and have helped it add about 50 people to the Pittsburgh office of 200 workers in the past few years.
Its clients include the area's dominant driller, Range Resources, which said its plans for drilling need to be revised for habitat concerns about 5 percent of the time.
The company employs a forester to lead the effort, and many companies have biologists on staff to inspect proposed sites and search for signs of life.
Field surveyors don't need to spot the actual animal -- just having a habitat conducive to that animal is enough to preclude drilling.
Trees with shredded bark are a summer roosting habitat for the Indiana bat, for example. "If that habitat exists, you have to assume that the bat could occur in that area," Mr. Dilley said.
Ecological surveying -- which usually includes searching for bats, wetlands and mussels -- and permitting takes about nine months for a Marcellus well. That's about three times longer than it takes to build and drill the well, said Katharine Fredriksen, the senior vice president for environmental strategy and regulatory affairs at Cecil-based Consol Energy.
After the well has been drilled and fracked, Consol Energy and other companies must reclaim the site and have the new vegetation inspected by the DEP. In Consol's case, the firm places a bond on the well site that isn't released until the DEP approves the reclamation.
In another testament to the divided world of shale drilling, what one party sees as environmental destruction is read by another as habitat rebirth.
The Ruffed Grouse Society, headquartered in Coraopolis, advocates for strategic tree clearing so patches of "young" forest with small trees can populate with creatures that need an underdeveloped habitat.
Since drilling operations sometimes need to clear established trees for a rig, the Ruffed Grouse Society sees the development as an opportunity to introduce young forest to regions where trees stand tall and old.
Though the organization's initial emphasis was on "the ruffed grouse and its sidekick, the woodcock," said its president, Michael Zagata, its mission has expanded to protect all woodland creatures who need young forest with small trees and little vegetation.
It's a class that includes 43 kinds of songbirds; plants that don't handle shade, such as the beech; and the organization's namesake, which is Pennsylvania's official state bird.
This region has too many trees for certain kinds of wildlife, said Mr. Zagata, who worked as an executive in oil companies and served as commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation under Republican Gov. George Pataki.
"Of course, it's beautiful in the fall, but if you're one of those wildlife species that need the young forest, then you've been evicted from your home or your habitat," he said.
Consol is strategically developing 12,000 acres of southwestern Pennsylvania land to work with the priorities of the Ruffed Grouse Society.
The society, in turn, manages the land for Consol and recovers part of the costs through some of the wood that's harvested. Hopefully, the ruffed grouse follows.