By Steven Maier
One Michigan-based organization is asking city dwellers to think of bats as neighbors rather than pests.
As bat populations dwindle nationwide, the Organization for Bat Conservation is seeking refuge for them in cities.
The organization, based in Pontiac, Michigan, is working with partners in 10 cities, teaching people how to coexist with an animal that many consider the stuff of nightmares.
Volunteers lead classes in building bat houses, creating habitats in small spaces and planting bat-friendly gardens, said Amanda Bevan, the organization’s education specialist and head of the group’s new Urban Bat Project. Other project initiatives include evening “bat walks,” where participants locate their nocturnal neighbors using a device that detects echolocation calls.
“Cities can kind of be like big deserts or big obstacles for wildlife,” Bevan said.
The goal of the Urban Bat Project is to build an environment that normally deters bats into one that supports them, she said.
But for the Urban Bat Project to be a success, Bevan must convince the public that bats are a good thing.
“People don’t like bats,” she said. “They might appreciate them, but they want to appreciate bats from afar.”
That’s why she’s organized a series of Bat Fests, where people meet a collection of nocturnal animals and participate in crafts and games. Participants learn about the dangers pesticides pose to bats get bat-friendly seeds to plant at home and learn to build bat houses.
Bat Fest takes place in Minneapolis on Aug. 19, Milwaukee on Aug. 26, Terra Haute, Indiana, Sept. 16 and Detroit on Sept. 23. More information on activities and animals is available on the organization’s website.
Carole Wrubel, the community engagement coordinator for the Michigan Science Center in Detroit, is a success story, now working on making some disciples of her own. Her conversion took place when volunteers from the Organization for Bat Conservation gave a presentation at the center.
“The people there were so passionate about bats,” she said. “I knew nothing about bats. I’ve never seen a bat in the wild.”
She’d never thought much about bats, one way or the other, she said. But she was struck by how excited and knowledgeable and volunteers were as they explained the bat’s ecological significance.
“And I walked away and said, ‘bats are really cool,’” she said, laughing.
Now Wrubel is putting together a list of farms, parks and gardens to visit around Detroit. She’ll attempt to convince them to introduce plants that will attract prey for urban bats–and complete her community instruction requirements in the pursuit of her master gardener certification at the same time. The seeds will be available free of charge to her potential converts, courtesy of the Organization for Bat Conservation.
The organization’s campaign comes at a critical time as bats around the country have been decimated by disease.
At least 7 million bats have died in the past decade as white nose syndrome has spread across the country, Bevan said. The white fungus, first discovered in early 2007 in New York state, disrupts hibernation, causing the bats to freeze or starve.
It is “the worst wildlife disease that we’ve ever seen in North America,” Bevan said.
The bat species that are most hard-hit are the most social and sleep closely to one another, she said, and urban-dwelling bats tend to be less affected, since their homes are less conducive to the fungus’ growth. By creating refuges for them in the city, they can nurture bat populations even as their rural cousins face near-extinction.
Some bats do very well in cities, Coleman said. They take advantage of warm structures and insects attracted by artificial lights, allowing them to stock up on critical fat for hibernation and raise their pups through vulnerable adolescent years.
There is hope for rural bats. Researchers are testing promising treatments, Bevan said, though implementation is challenging. Scientists will likely have to treat individual colonies or as they hibernate, a daunting task. Missouri alone contains more than 7,000 caves that would require treatment.
The fungus has now spread to 33 states and five Canadian provinces, said Jeremy Coleman, national white nose syndrome coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a position he’s held since since 2008.
White nose syndrome has been found in every Great Lakes state, Ontario and Quebec.
It’s likely that some species will die out altogether in some states, Bevan said. And that could pose a problem for agriculture. Bats control pest insects like the corn earworm and spotted cucumber beetle, saving farmers billions of dollars each year. They also benefit city-dwellers – the big brown bat, the most common urban variety, eats as many as 5,000 insects every night.
Bats are the primary predator of night-flying insects, Coleman said. And there aren’t many that could pick up the slack for them.
Officials were first alerted to the disease in 2007 by massive die-offs, “when we saw fungus on bats, bats dying in the tens of thousands and falling all over the ground,” Coleman said. “No one had ever really seen that.”
The fungus permeates the bats’ wings, causing them to wake more frequently during hibernation, he said. The bats often run out of energy and die before winter ends.
One 2011 study saw bat populations on the East Coast fall 88 percent since the fungus was introduced.
People can unwittingly carry the fungus with them, he said, and should be careful. Cavers looking to stop the spread can consult a map of confirmed fungus areas at the white nose syndrome website.
Editor’s note: This piece was corrected to reflect the correct location of Bat Fest in Indiana on September 16. It will be in Terra Haute, Indiana, not Turahoe.