Going batty – why we need those spooky little creatures and what’s being done to save them

face to face with a bat
© SFI
happy halloween© SFI

It’s Halloween and you’ve likely seen some bats decorating doors and windows around the neighborhood. As the only flying mammal on earth, bats have fascinated us for centuries, and often conjure up images of spooky creatures that fly in the night. They also play an important role in the environment by regulating insect populations.
But bat populations have experienced a dangerous decline in recent years. A disease called White-Nose Syndrome is wiping them out by the tens of thousands in North America, and conservation efforts are sorely needed to stop its spread.

Bats have an important job in maintaining the balance of forest ecosystems. They are insectivorous and the primary consumers of night-time insects. They can eat up to 100% of their body weight in insects each night, or the rough equivalent of 500 mosquitos per hour. They are critical to controlling insect populations that are harmful to forests and agriculture.

bat hanging upside down© SFI
When bat habitats, called “hibernacula”, are disturbed by noise, light or human contact, bats can use up critical amounts of energy, threatening their ability to survive the winter. Human contact can even spread disease, like the White-Nose Syndrome, a fungus which is causing mass bat die-offs across North America. There is no cure for the disease, and in New Brunswick alone, an estimated 99% of little brown bats have been lost. The population is believed to number just 22, down from 7,000 in 2001.

The disease is believed to have been introduced by a European traveler to New York in 2006, spreading to Canada in 2010. Since then, there have been confirmed cases in five Canadian provinces and 25 US States. According to the Canadian Wildlife Health Co-Operative, the disease is believed to be spreading at a rate of 124 to 155 miles per year. At this rate, the entire Canadian bat population may be infected within 12 to 18 years, if conservation efforts don’t intervene.

The key challenge to conservation efforts is that little is known about the locations of bat habitats. The bats must be found before they can be monitored and conserved.

Through a grant awarded by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), The Nature Conservancy of Canada created an inventory of bat populations in southern British Columbia, including the locations of their habitats and habitat health. Part of the work helped design an innovative structure to allow large and small bats to enter their hibernaculum in an abandoned mine, while keeping humans out. This is likely to be an effective way to manage White-Nose Syndrome.

face to face with a bat© SFI

Bats are also being studied by a number of land managers in North America certified to the SFI standard, the only forest certification program in North America that requires research to improve forest health, productivity, conservation understanding, and sustainable management of forest resources.

Since disturbance or loss of habitat negatively affects bat populations, forest companies want to know how to effectively manage the land while reducing impacts to wildlife communities. For example, SFI Program Participant Weyerhaeuser partnered with multiple universities and the National Council of Air and Stream Improvement (NCASI) to study whether their managed forests in the Southeast were compatible with bat activities, especially foraging.

Build Your Own Bat House

bat house© http://batconservation.org/
You don’t have to be a conservation organization or forest company to help bats. By installing a bat house in your own backyard, you can provide them with shelter and give females a safe place to raise their young. Interested in building a bat house? Check out National Wildlife Federation’s website for a great step by step guide. If DIY is not your thing, then the Organization for Bat Conservation can help you can buy one.

Bats use forests for foraging in different ways: some bat species forage near forest edges while others prefer to feed within the forest. This is dependent on the method bats use to catch insects – aerial (from the air) vs. gleaning (from branches, bark, or leaves). Thinning a forest has been a recommendation for improving bat habitat as it reduces vegetation clutter which allows more maneuverability. On a landscape level, these studies found that creating a mix of different aged forests supports foraging habitat for a variety of bat communities. SFI Program Participant Plum Creek joined forces with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources to protect the cave habitat of an endangered gray bat colony located on its managed lands, and one of only three cave habitats left in Georgia.

The Gray Bat has been on the US endangered species list since 1976 due to habitat loss. Their reliance on caves year-round makes them particularly vulnerable to any cave loss or human disturbance. And SFI Program Participant Hancock Forest Management teamed up with Michigan State University, NCASI and the Oregon Department of Forestry to research the best way of retaining patches of trees, including snags, large live trees and fallen wood, to promote bat and bird roosting on harvested sites.

To find out more about SFI, its conservation partners, and its grant program, visit http://www.sfiprogram.org/.

Going batty – why we need those spooky little creatures and what’s being done to save them
It’s Halloween and you’ve likely seen some bats decorating doors and windows around the neighborhood. As the only flying mammal on earth, bats have fascinated us for centuries, and often conjure up images of spooky creatures that fly in the night.

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