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Shepherdstown man drives W.Va. roads to count bats

Larry Dean conducts acoustical surveys of the night creatures

August 22, 2010|By RICHARD F. BELISLE
  • Larry Dean of Shepherdstown, W.Va., was a volunteer who participated in acoustical surveys in an effort to estimate bat populations. The surveys were done from mid-July through Sunday.
Richard F. Belisle, Staff Writer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Unless something is done soon, bats will go the way of the passenger pigeon.

This time it won't be shotguns causing their possible demise, but a nasty fungus called White-nose Syndrome (WNS) that is killing bats by the millions, mostly in the caves where they hibernate, scientists say.

The name comes from a white powder that ends up on the muzzles of the animals.

The source of the disease is still unknown, scientists said.

Volunteers, mostly in eastern West Virginia, including the Eastern Panhandle, conducted acoustical surveys in an effort to estimate bat populations. The surveys were done from mid-July through Aug. 15.

"Bats," a publication of Bats Conservation International (BCI), an advocacy group, noted in its summer 2010 edition, "that more than a million bats have been killed by WNS, that entire populations have been wiped out, that extinctions are likely if solutions are not found."

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Said Mylea Bayless, emergency response coordinator for BCI: "To watch these bats die by the thousands rips a hole in your soul that is hard to describe."

Larry Dean of Shepherdstown was one of the volunteers who took part in the surveys. His job was to drive slowly, about 20 mph, along 20- to 25-mile pre-established routes that follow known bat habitats, usually over sparsely traveled rural roads. At times, it was easy to get lost, even with a detailed map and GPS system, he said.

"I was getting pretty good at navigating those roads at night," Dean said.

His routes have taken him to Morgan, Berkeley, Jefferson, Hampshire, Hardy and Mineral counties, he said. He begins a half-hour after sunset and drives for about an hour-and-a-half.

A device called a detector, which looks much like a plumbing fixture, is attached to the roof Dean's car by a magnet. Capable of picking up ultra-high frequencies well beyond what humans can hear, it picks up the sounds of flying bats and transfers them to a voice image on a laptop computer in his car.

"Some areas, there are a lot of bats and some, there are only a few. In some areas, there are no bats and sometimes I see them flying in front of the headlights, but they're too low to be picked up by the equipment," Dean said.

The fungus was first discovered in 2006 in caves near Albany, N.Y. It has since spread into New England, the Tri-State area and contiguous states, and is moving south and west.

"There's nothing the bats can do in their own defense," Craig Stihler, an endangered species biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources in Elkins, W.Va., said during a recent phone interview.

The disease was first discovered in West Virginia in four caves in Pendleton County in January and Februrary 2009, Stihler said.

Estimates on the number of bats killed in the state over the last year run as high as 50,000.

Contrary to popular belief, bats eat few mosquitoes, Stihler said. They have to eat about half their body weight in a night, which means they hunt insects larger than mosquitoes.

Little brown bats, the most prevalent species in West Virginia, often filled the skies at dusk in search of food. Scientists say they are being killed in such numbers that the species could disappear. Stihler estimated the mortality rate in bat hibernation sites to be around 90 percent.

Tri-colored bats, northern long-eared bats and Indiana bats are also showing signs of the disease, Stihler said.

Federal and state wildlife agencies are closing caves to the public in an effort to protect bat habitats.

A follow-up acoustical survey next summer will compare numbers with this year's count to determine the extent of devastation from WNS on the state's bat populations, Stihler said.

This year, he hopes the volunteers will cover up to 3,000 miles.

"We expect to get good data in 2010," he said. "This will be a concentrated effort over the next three to five years. We don't need a count every year to get a trend."

According to a recent New York Times editorial on WNS, the Obama administration has approved $1.9 million for research on the disease, an amount that needs to be increased sharply, the newspaper said.

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