Are the Bats Back?
Summer evenings are perfect for sitting outside and watching the sky as dusk closes in; except for the mosquitoes. When the last colors fade in the west and darkness settles in, their onslaught drives me indoors before I really want to go. It seems these biting insects have become more numerous since White Nose Syndrome (WNS) decimated our bat population. Just a few years ago, I’d see clouds of bats swoop and dive in their nightly dance in search of insects, and felt comforted by their presence, knowing that every mosquito and gnat they consumed was one less to go after me. I’ve missed them. But this year, I’ve actually seen a few bats. I wondered if they were beginning to bounce back, so I called Vermont Fish and Wildlife to speak with wildlife specialist Alyssa Bennett.
WNS was first spotted in Vermont at Danby’s Morris Cave, in the winter of 2008. Researchers began to monitor hibernation and breeding sites. Tens of thousands of dead bats were found at Dorset’s Aeolus Cave, considered to be New England’s largest bat hibernation cave. Their surveys showed a 90% decline in the population of the little brown bat, and a shocking 98% for northern long-eared bats, in about a year’s time. This is, according to Bennett, “an unprecedented event,” for such a short span of time. When I mentioned my observations this year, she said that others have been calling Fish and Wildlife with bat sightings too, but it’s too soon to tell whether the bats at risk are recovering. Vermont has nine species of bats; three of them migrate south for the winter. It is very possible, she said, that the bats I’ve been seeing are big brown bats, or some other species, whose numbers were not as affected by WNS. Last winter’s survey did show a slight decline in the death rate, but they’re not sure if that’s because WNS has begun to run its course, or if surviving bats have developed a resistance to it. “These are burning questions in the minds of researchers,” Bennett said. “There is still so much we don’t know.” I asked Bennett whether they would continue to monitor the hibernating colonies this winter; they will not. “We need to be cautious,” she said. “The bats are very fragile right now. Disturbing a hibernating colony might jeopardize the ones that have so far survived.”
Signs of WNS have been seen as far south as Alabama, and in five provinces of Canada. As the disease progresses, we may lose half our bat species; bad news, since each bat consumes a thousand small insects in an hour’s time, for several hours a night, reducing the number of insects that spread diseases like equine encephalitis and West Nile virus, and minimizing agriculture’s use of pesticides.
Call Vermont Fish and Wildlife at 802-828-1000, or visit vtfishandwildlife.com for information on ways that you can help.
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