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Go batty for bats, and help them survive

Bats. Just hearing the word makes many of us start screaming, covering our heads and running for shelter. But bats aren't bad. They are amazing and important — but very misunderstood — little creatures!

First, let's deal with those myths about bats.  

No, bats aren't dirty. They are actually very clean and groom themselves just like cats. In addition, the bacteria in bat guano (feces) is actually helpful in improving soaps and antibiotics.

No, all bats don't have rabies. Only about 1 percent of bats have rabies. As they don't bite and they die from rabies, there's extremely little chance of getting rabies from them.

No, bats don't suck blood. Although there are vampire bats in Mexico and South America that lick the blood of animals, bats don't puncture the skin and suck blood.

No, bats don't get tangled in your hair. They don't build nests so they don't scavenge for nesting materials. In fact, bats are afraid of people and will avoid us whenever possible. And they do detect people when they fly, even at night.

No, bats aren't blind and they aren't crazy. Although they have small eyes, they can see. As they are mostly active at night, they use "echolocation," a kind of sonar that senses where to fly and what to avoid. As for crazy, we humans learn a lot from bats about echolocation.

And, no, bats are not worthless pests. Just the opposite. They actually control insect pests. One bat can eat thousands of mosquito-sized insects in one night. They are crucial to many ecosystems, especially farms and forests, because they help control insect populations, reseed forest land, and pollinate plants, including food plants. And bat guano is an excellent source of fertilizer for plants.

Bats ARE important! Let's learn a little more about them.

Did you know that bats are mammals, just like humans? In fact, bats are the only mammals that fly. There are about 1,000 species of bats around the world, but in Carlton County, one bat in particular will cause some changes in how we do things.

The Northern Long-Eared Bat (NLEB), or Myotis septentrionalis, is distinguished by its long ears (compared to other bats). Found in the eastern U.S. from Maine to North Carolina, westward to Oklahoma and into Wyoming, and north through the Dakotas and into Montana and Canada, the NLEB is a medium-sized bat that has a body length of 3 to 3.7 inches. Its wingspan, however, can stretch from 9 to 10 inches. The fur color ranges from medium to dark brown on its back and tawny to pale brown on its underside. Their maximum lifespan is estimated to be up to 18.5 years.

Like most bats, NLEB emerge at dusk to feed. They usually fly through the understory of forested areas and feed on moths, flies, leafhoppers, caddisflies, mosquitoes and beetles which they catch in flight or pluck from vegetation.

The NLEB spend the winter hibernating in caves and mines. Their "hibernacula" needs are for constant temperatures, high humidity and no air currents. Those who find NLEB in the winter will often spot them in small crevices or cracks with only their noses and ears visible.

During the summer, NLEB roost singly or in colonies underneath the bark of, or in cavities or crevices of, both live and dead trees (called snags). Sometimes the males and non-reproductive females may roost in cooler places, like caves and mines. They are rarely found roosting in structures, such as barns, sheds or house attics.

The life cycle of the NLEB is very interesting. Breeding time for them begins in late summer or early fall when males begin to swarm near their hibernacula. After they mate, the females store the sperm during hibernation. When spring comes, females emerge from their hibernacula, ovulate (release eggs internally), and then the stored sperm fertilizes an egg. This is known as delayed fertilization.

Then the pregnant females migrate to summer areas, usually in safe and quiet forested areas, where they roost in small colonies and each give birth to a single baby bat (called a pup). Most females within a colony give birth about the same time, which may occur from late May or early June to late July. Young bats start flying by 18 to 21 days after birth. These maternity colonies of females and young can have 30-60 or more bats at the beginning of the summer.

Why will the NLEB change the way we do things? They are one of seven species of hibernating bats affected by the White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungal disease known to only affect bats, and they are one of four species that have experienced severe declines in numbers. In fact, in areas where WNS has been present for three years or more, NLEB are almost extinct. As a result, the NLEB was listed in April 2015 as a threatened species. They need help!

Symptoms of WNS were first observed in New York State in 2006, and this disease has spread rapidly from the Northeast to the Midwest and Southeast. Since then, bats with WNS have been confirmed in 28 states and five Canadian provinces. In four states, including Minnesota, the fungus that causes WNS has been detected.

As its name indicates, WNS is a white fungus that appears on the muzzle (or nose) and other parts of bats. In areas that have WNS, bats act strangely and many are found sick, dying, or dead. In some areas, WNS has killed 90 to 100 percent of the bats. Since WNS was identified, more than six million bats have been killed.

There is no cure for WNS. However, "researchers are studying several potential treatments that show promise for controlling the fungus and reducing impacts of the disease on the bats," according to Jeremy Coleman, National WNS Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). An extensive network of cooperating state and federal agencies, tribes, organizations, institutions and individuals is being led by the USFWS to investigate the WNS, its source and spread, and to develop management strategies to minimize the impacts of WNS.

Because of their research and investigations, the USFWS developed an interim 4(d) rule, effective in May 2015, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the NLEB. They just released the final 4(d) rules that I've tried to summarize and simplify.

In these rules, the word "take" is defined as "to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, etc., when conducting certain activities." Incidental take refers to harming, harassment or killing of NLEB that occurs in an otherwise lawful activity, such as clearing trees for a construction project. Under the final rule, intentional take, or intentionally harming, harassing or killing NLEB, is prohibited throughout the species' range, except for removal of NLEB from human-made structures or when necessary to protect human health and safety.

In WNS buffer zones, which includes Carlton County, incidental take is prohibited in these areas and instances:

  • within a hibernation site for the NLEB;

  • within a quarter mile of a hibernaculum;

  • in activities (such as tree removal) that destroy known occupied maternity roost trees or any other trees within 150 feet of a maternity roost tree, during the pup-rearing season (June 1 through July 31).

In Carlton County so far, according to Carlton County Land Commissioner Greg Bernu, the middle tiers of townships in either the Sandpiper or Line 3 Enbridge replacement areas and Jay Cooke State Park have areas of known maternity roost trees or hibernacula.

“Last year's interim 4(d) affected us by instituting a one-quarter mile buffer around known roost trees during the pup season of June 1 through July 31,” Bernu said. “The database only showed one known roost tree in an area we had a timber sale. We had to push the operations of this sale to start Aug 1. For 2016, we have already adapted to the pup season of June 1 through July 31 and have altered our timber-sale offerings accordingly." This ruling also applies to commercial loggers or others who want to clear large acres of trees.

Based on surveys conducted by the Carlton and Aitkin County Land Departments using an Enbridge Eco-footprint grant, Bernu said “our total forest bat population, including NLEB, is healthy and the bats trapped in mist netting have shown no evidence of WNS.”

“We will be surveying more sites this coming summer season," Bernu added.

County landowners will be able to cut down hazardous trees in their yard, and they can also cut trees for firewood. However, to help the NLEB, Bernu advises "the conscientious landowner should try to save large, hollow trees in the firewood area for potential maternity roost trees."

Will Bomier of the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) said his agency doesn’t have any landowner projects that have been significantly impacted by the provisions needed to mitigate for potential risk to the NLEB.  

“However, we have been modifying our plans to specify that in townships where roosts have been documented, conservation practices that would result in damage/removal of potential roost trees must be only implemented in the winter (according to dates provided by USFWS),” Bomier said. “So, there are minimum impacts thus far, other than education and plan modification."

Kelly Smith, conservation technician with Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), agreed.

“I haven't heard of any landowners or loggers having to deal with this issue so far,” Smith said. “There may be more checking and paper work to do for forest management work. I think it will be rare that a project will be prohibited….just perhaps delayed or modified."

Bernu cautioned that if, based on population surveys, the USFWS upgrades to NLEB to “endangered,” it would then be "permanently established under the 'Threatened' Status and the Endangered Listing will kick out the 4(d) rule." In that case, "a whole new game is before us all." This means that most intentional and incidental takes throughout the range of the NLEB would be prohibited unless permitted.

Besides leaving some dead and dying trees for roost trees, what else can we do to help the NLEB? In areas with few roost trees, we can install bat boxes to provide roosting places. One bat box can provide a home for up to 100 mothers and newborns.

Also, don't disturb hibernating bats in caves and mines, and if you do visit a known hiberculum or work with bat boxes, make sure you follow approved decontamination protocols. And most important, under no circumstances should clothing, footwear, or equipment used in a WNS-affected area be used in unaffected areas.

There are some glimmers of hope in the battle against WNS. In just the eight years since this disease, previously unknown to science, has been identified, its cause is now understood and a solution is hoped to soon to be found. With cooperation of all people in NLEB areas working together under 4(d) rules, we can strengthen the NLEB population and decrease the expanse of WNS.

Bats aren't scary! They are amazing creatures that are extremely important for farms and forests. I hope that after reading this you will go "batty for bats" and do what you can to help and protect them!

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For more information on the special rule for the northern long-eared bat, go to www.fws.gov/midwest/endangered/mammals/nleb/index.html. For information on white-nose syndrome, go to www.whitenosesyndrome.org/. You can also contact Greg Bernu at the Carlton County Land Department. If you want to build your own bat house, you can get info from http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/BatHouse.html.

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Kim Samuelson is Carlton SWCD's elected supervisor for District 4. For further information about Carlton SWCD, call them at 218-384-3891, or visit them online at www.carltonswcd.org or at the Carlton SWCD Facebook page, or stop by their new office for a visit (808 3rd Street, Carlton).

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