National Parks Work to Protect Bats and Their Habitats
By Dave Ramont
If, like me, you've ever been jolted awake in the night by a ruckus—only to find a frantic bat flying around the room—you may have felt a bit … creeped out. But bats play an important role in a healthy ecosystem: They eat insects, pollinate plants, serve as prey base and disperse seeds.
And now bats face a new threat—white-nose syndrome (WNS), likely introduced to the United States from Europe about 10 years ago. WNS is a fungal disease, decimating up to 100 percent of some bat colonies. The National Park Service (NPS) has dedicated $3 million to address WNS-related issues. From monitoring the health of bat populations to minimizing the human spread of the fungus that causes WNS, they have 43 projects underway in more than 40 parks to safeguard bats, their hibernacula, and maternity roosts.
Margaret Wild, chief veterinarian for the NPS, is excited to see creative solutions from parks to fight WNS. "From installing bat gates to using acoustic surveys, resource managers employed techniques that best fit the needs of their parks," she said. Personnel regulate human access into caves, abandoned mines and tunnels bats use for roosting and hibernation. Staff at Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Park, Maryland, used funding to install gates in Stickpile Tunnel that allow bats safe passage but keep people out.
Wild believes education is the first step to prevent the human spread of the fungus that causes WNS. Several parks allocated funds to develop educational tools including programs and materials to explain the impact of WNS, how it spreads, and how people can help. For example, Lava Bends National Monument in California is distant from areas affected by WNS. So the biggest threat of disease introduction is human spread of the fungus. Staff dedicated funds to educating, screening, and, as necessary, decontaminating clothes and gear from its 130,000 annual visitors.
There are several methods to survey populations in parks: acoustic surveys, mist-netting, and radio-telemetry—allowing researchers to determine the effects of WNS on different species in different regions. Scientists use the data to identify at-risk populations and refine policies to better protect them. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, researchers surveying for bats discovered that out of 11 species captured, the capture rate for three species declined 85 percent from 2012 to 2014, and another 65 percent from 2014 to 2015. Scientists linked this to the onset of WNS.
As far as what local parks can do to protect bats, this varies based on the local situation, according to Wild. "But one thing that's important everywhere is protecting natural areas and habitats where bats live," she said. "And helping visitors understand the value of bats and the risks they face, including WNS, habitat loss and windmill turbines."
To see if anything was being done in my hometown, I reached out to Pam Otto, nature programs manager with the St. Charles, Ill., Park District. She said that while they don't have any direct involvement in bat conservation, a bat education and awareness program is on their annual schedule. This includes talking about safe use of insecticides and displaying several models of bat houses for people wanting to attract them to their yards.
Sure, bats have a rather creepy reputation. But they're fascinating creatures that play an important role in nature. And the National Park Service—celebrating its 100th anniversary—is dedicated to protecting them.