Bats may not occupy a lofty position on the list of iconic Montana critters, but if western bat populations plummeted, as they have in other parts of North America, Montanans would take notice.
Bats devour massive quantities of insects, with one study estimating that the winged mammals annually save the U.S. agricultural industry as much as $50 billion in pest control. They also kill insects that are either a nuisance or potentially dangerous to humans because of disease.
A single little brown bat can eat 1,200 mosquito-sized insects in an hour, while a colony of 150 big brown bats can devour 33 million cucumber beetles each summer.
But millions of bats are dying across eastern North America because of a fungal disease called white nose syndrome, and the potential for serious ecological imbalances has researchers scrambling to learn more about the fungus.
Naturalists in British Columbia recently conducted a “bio-blitz” of research, composing the first formal bat inventory in the Upper Flathead River drainage. In Montana, researchers are in the initial phases of a similar baseline study, which could lead to a greater understanding of how to help the endangered bats survive.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, white nose was first documented in New York in 2006 and has killed between 5.7 and 6.7 million bats in the eastern United States and Canada.
Seven species of bat are affected by white-nose syndrome, including three Montana species. Recent research indicates that Montana is home to northern myotis bats, a species that the USFWS has proposed for endangered species listing due to the widespread population collapses. Scientists are predicting the regional extinction of the little brown myotis by 2026.
The new study concludes that the Flathead River Valley could play an important role in understanding the disease, which has been recorded in 19 states and four Canadian provinces, before it arrives.
Cori Lausen conducted the formal inventory during a four-day period in June 2013. Lousen detected both species of endangered bat in the Flathead: little brown myotis and northern myotis and encouraged further inventory given the relatively rapid westward spread of the fungus.
Bryce Maxell, the senior zoologist for the Montana Natural Heritage Program, said the frenzy of research is important because biologists don’t know how much longer before the disease arrives in Montana.
“The objective is to gather as much baseline data about our bat population as possible because we don’t know how much longer we have to gather it,” he said.
The presence of northern myotis is a strong indicator that the disease could spread to Montana, but Maxell said Montana’s environmental conditions make it a lesser candidate.
The hope is that the disease never arrives in Montana, but if it does, the state will be much better equipped to deal with white nose syndrome thanks to the ongoing collaborative research efforts of a wide range of agencies and individuals, including caving clubs who have been instrumental in data gathering.
The Bigfork Cave Club helped a wildlife biologist launch the first-ever bat inventory study in Glacier National Park. The students hung data loggers in several caves to monitor temperature and humidity, which tells researchers whether bats can survive there.
Knowledge of bats in the Waterton-Glacier area is nearly non-existent, and expanding that understanding is particularly important as the fungal disease decimates bat populations in eastern North America.
“Montana’s caving community is very informed and very knowledgeable,” Maxell said. “They want to continue accessing these caves, which agencies were initially going to close to the public. They soon recognized that it would be more beneficial to enlist the cavers to help us gather data.”
Maxell suspects the disease originated in Europe and spread to the United States by cavers. He said cavers gathering data in Montana decontaminate their gear prior to caving.
The caving club “has mapped a good chunk of the caves in the state and created incredibly world class maps to document where the bats are and record temperature and relative humidity,” Maxell said. “The work has been invaluable.”
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