Bat Bio-blitz in the Flathead Valley

Bat biologists hurry to learn more about a fungal disease killing millions of bats in North America

By Tristan Scott

Given the ill perception of bats, the winged mammals might not figure prominently into the public’s catalog of critters worth protecting in Montana, but if western bat populations plummeted, as they have in other parts of North America, residents would take notice.

Millions of bats are dying across eastern North America because of a fungal disease called white nose syndrome, and the potential for dramatic ecological imbalances has researchers scrambling to learn more about the fungus.

Bat biologists in the Flathead Valley of Montana and British Columbia recently conducted a so-called “bio-blitz” of research, compiling data they will add to last year’s bat inventory in the Upper Flathead River drainage – the first formal inventory of its kind – and releasing a report called “July 2014 Bat Inventory of Flathead River Valley.”

Knowledge of bats in the Flathead and Waterton-Glacier area is scant, researchers say, and expanding that understanding is particularly important as the fungal disease decimates bat populations in eastern North America.

During the bio-blitz, the research teams captured or acoustically detected two species of bat that are considered endangered at a national level – little brown myotis and northern myotis, both of which carry the disease.

In Montana and the Flathead River Valley, a baseline study could lead to a greater understanding of how to help the endangered bats survive, said Cori Lausen, a bat specialist at Wildlife Conservation Society Canada who led the “Flathead Bat BioBlitz.”

Lausen said white nose syndrome has not yet been detected in B.C. or Montana, but could be at any time, adding that the disease is expected to arrive within the next decade if spread by bats alone, and not humans.

“We can only help bats if we know where they hibernate,” she said. “No significant bat hibernacula have yet been discovered in B.C. and yet the Flathead is surrounded by karst, including the deepest cave in Canada. Through collaborations with cavers we have only just begun to search for bat hibernacula here. It’s imperative that we continue the search in the Flathead for bat hibernacula since large clusters of bats may be present but undiscovered.”

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, small brown bat can eat 1,200 mosquito-sized insects in an hour, while a colony of 150 large brown bats can devour 33 million cucumber beetles in a summer.

Seven species of bat are affected by white-nose syndrome, including three Montana species. The recent research indicates that Montana is home to northern myotis bats, a species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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 presence of northern myotis is a strong indicator that the disease could spread to Montana, but Lausen said the hope is that the disease never arrives; if it does, however, the state will be much better equipped to deal with white nose syndrome thanks to the ongoing collaborative research efforts.

Scientists believe white nose syndrome started in a cave in Albany, New York and is now found in about 28 states and five Canadian provinces. The fungus kills bats as they hibernate.

The bio-blitz, dedicated exclusively to the study of bat species in the Flathead, was prompted by a public plea made in June by B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak, who asked citizen scientists to count bats because, she said, “there is surprisingly little known about local bat species and their numbers.”

“We went one step further and gathered biologists for a four-day bat bio-blitz in the Flathead,” said Mark Worthing, Flathead Outreach Coordinator at Sierra Club B.C.

Lausen and her team captured seven different bat species during the bio-blitz, including the little brown myotis, silver-haired bat and hoary bat. They acoustically detected three more species, including the highly endangered northern myotis and eastern red bat.

The Bat BioBlitz was organized by six Canadian and U.S. conservation groups: Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, B.C. Chapter; Headwaters Montana; the National Parks Conservation Association; Sierra Club B.C.; Wildsight; and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

The groups also released a 5-minute video of the Bat BioBlitz made by award-winning filmmaker Leanne Allison, available at https://vimeo.com/109662328

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