Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Wildlife Emergency

"Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom..” (Bertrand Russell)

"We have a wildlife emergency!" my friend declared. She was ringing my doorbell with her 11-year-old son, both of them looking worried and anxious. Possibilities flashed through my mind. Did someone hit one of the neighborhood fawns? Was the injured Loon back again?

No, this was a bat emergency. They had discovered a blind and naked baby bat, still alive, but laying helplessly on the neighbor's deck in the middle of a summer's day. I looked down at the two-inch long bat pup, then up to the two hopeful faces watching my every move, and felt my heart sink.

Two-inch long bat pup on my gloved finger. (c) John Ashley.When a child learns empathy and wants to help an injured animal, how do you explain to him that many baby animals don't survive to adulthood? I put on my "serious biologist face" and tried my best. In a good year, I started, maybe three-quarters or more of the pups in a bat nursery will survive to become full-grown bats. In a bad year, less than half of them survive. "The animal world is really, really tough -- and that's perfectly natural," as long as we don't do things to make it even harder on them. Inside, I doubted that my rationalization was helping, but maybe I was planting seeds for the future.

There was no good solution. An abandoned bat pup is unlikely to survive for more than a day. But I had a young version of myself by my side, and we had to do something. I couldn't find any sign of bats in the house where the pup lay. So with gloved hands, I collected the purplish pup and carried her next door, where I knew that bats lived. We placed her near the roof ridge and hoped for the best.

In the summer, pregnant bats move into warmer (thermally stable) locations, like metal roofs and attic spaces, to give birth and raise their young in nursery colonies. Like us, bat mothers usually only have one baby per year. They nurse them with milk for about six weeks. The pups grow quickly and can fly at about three weeks, but they normally stay in the nursery until weened. Sometimes, a pup crawls or falls out of the nursery. Sometimes, when disturbed, the pup clings to mom and she tries to move it to a new location. Either way the pup is pretty much doomed. (This is why bat exclusion measures should never occur in the summer.)

In the fall, most bats will move out of human structures and migrate to thermally-stable caves ("hibernacula") for hibernation. If disturbed during hibernation, they burn up the equivalent of 20-30 day's worth of stored energy. So undisturbed nursery and hibernacula locations are perilously critical to bat survival.

It's revealing that, in locations where the native bats are large and easily seen, bats are cherished and sometimes even revered. But in places where bats are small and hard to see -- like North America -- bats are feared and persecuted. And that can lead to strange behavior in unexpected places.

Back when I worked in Glacier National Park, I attended a yearly meeting with most of the park's Rangers. These are guys and gals that I hold in the highest regard. But when a bat appeared at one such meeting, the Rescue Rangers left me shaking my head. One after another, the room quickly filled with highly-trained men and women swatting and throwing things at the frightened bat. One very intelligent Ranger friend opened the door and repeatedly threw a towel outside. "The bat will chase it out the door!" he yelled. Well, I've watched thousands of bats in the wild, and not once have I seen one chasing a towel.

The Rangers stopped for a moment, and the bat landed on a wall. I quietly placed an empty coffee can over the exhausted bat, slipped a piece of paper between the can and the wall, and safely trapped the bat in the can. Another ranger friend cheered, "How many Rangers does it take to catch a bat? Ha! They can't do it. All it takes is one biologist!"

In another bout with the Park, I tried to get the Chief Naturalist interested in Glacier's native bats. During the popular summer-time campfire talks, the seasonal Naturalists often get upstaged by bats feeding on the mosquitoes that are in turn feeding on the audience. With my own money, I bought a set of slides showing our native bat species. I then donated the slides to the park collection so the Naturalists could incorporate bats into their educational slide shows. I also wrote a detailed memo about potential funding sources for buying a "bat detector" (detectors amplify bat echolocations so humans can hear them). I figured that the campfire kids would be fascinated to hear the bats feeding around them. My efforts went absolutely nowhere. Apparently, native bats were not cute and cuddly enough to mention to park visitors.

Aptly-named Townsend's Big-eared Bat. (c) John Ashley.The Park Service is required by law to preserve each park's natural resources -- even bats -- for future generations. But just try explaining this to the dusty bureaucrats running some of the park units. Glacier has lots of old buildings within the park boundary. And this means that lots of excellent bat habitat is infested -- with park employees and visitors. So I volunteered to take the rabies vaccination shots, at a cost to the park of about $100. Then the park would have a trained and protected person to respond to bats in buildings. You can guess how well this went over. The native bats living in Glacier Park were lumped into "pest management" instead. It takes some people a long time to learn how to change directions.

You can learn all about bats in short order at the links listed below. I won't go into the many ways in which bats benefit all of us -- even the people who still fear them. Suffice it to say that we really need bats if we want our children to live in a healthy environment. Right now, our native bats are suffering a "wildlife emergency" of their own, and they really, really need our help.

White-nose Syndrome (WNS), is named for a white fungus that appears on the faces of infected bats. Since its discovery in a single New York cave in 2006, WNS has killed more than a million hibernating bats. Little brown bats appear to be hit the hardest. WNS is rapidly spreading south and west, and it's about 95% fatal. A number of bat species risk extinction within a matter of years -- unless we find a cause and a solution. To learn more about WNS and how you might help, read more at the Bat Conservation International website.

Bats and humans can peacefully coexist -- we did so for generations. As you read this, a handful of bat biologists are struggling to find a solution to this new wildlife emergency. Our children will be watching our every move.

Bat Links:

What to do if you've found a bat
Bat Conservation International
Bats of Montana


  1. Hey John - This is a very interesting but disturbing story about bats. I was not aware that some of the species are in such danger of extinction. Thanks for providing me with more knowledge of them. The TEXAS HIGHWAYS magazine I told you about with our Texas bat stories will be in the mail to you tomorrow. Thanks for your story.