Nina Fascione, Vice President of Development
I was watching TV with my family last Saturday evening at our house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore when we heard a scratching noise in the wood stove. Another bat had come down the chimney and was stuck in the stove pipe. My husband Steve put on gloves and fetched it out. It was a big brown bat – Eptesicus fuscus – one of the larger of the Maryland bat species. It was beautiful. And pissed off, refusing to hold still for a decent photo. We released it outside and went back to the (bad) movie we were watching.
The fact that we regularly find bats in our second home doesn’t bother us. Steve and I are both wildlife professionals and fully appreciate the myriad ecological benefits that bats provide. Anyone who has spent time on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has experienced aggravating swarms of mosquitoes and other disagreeable pests that insectivorous bats help to control with their voracious appetites. And bats aren’t just helping us out with the annoying bugs (although I’m delighted that they eat stinkbugs). Bats help control insect pests that cause billions of dollars in agricultural damage in North America each year. From pecan growers in the southeastern U.S., who have bats to thank for their consumption of the damaging pecan nut casebearer, to the Texas cotton farmers whose crops are safer because millions of Mexican free-tailed bats love to dine on corn earworm moths, bats provide tremendous ecological services. A study in the journal Science estimated that the value of bats to the U.S. agriculture industry ranges from $3.7 billion to $53 billion per year. For these services, we are happy to share our home with these visitors from time to time.
What does worry us is that although this most recent visitor was a big brown bat, we are not finding little brown bats in our house, as we did several years ago. We are concerned that this might be due to white-nose syndrome, the devastating bat disease that is ravaging populations of hibernating bats in as many as 22 states and five Canadian provinces. Populations of the little brown bat – Myotis lucifigus – have crashed in recent years; by more than 90% in some states and known hibernation caves.
White-nose syndrome is named for the fungus Geomyces destructans, which looks like a white power on the bat’s nose, ears and other body parts. Ten North American bat species have been infected with the fungus to date, and more are potentially vulnerable. The disease has killed upwards of 5.7 million insectivorous bats, and so far scientists have not found a cure. Most frightening is that losses are so severe that researchers are predicting regional extinctions of the little brown bat – previously one of America’s most common mammals – in northeastern states within 15 years.
For the past few years, Defenders has been engaged with a coalition of groups working to secure federal funds for white-nose syndrome research and management. Our coalition successfully obtained four million dollars in the 2012 fiscal year budget to go toward research into treatments, surveying caves and educating the public about this problem. Now we are working to stop budget cuts to wildlife funding that would impact bats and other wildlife. While all wildlife programs are important, and those that deal with imperiled species particularly need to be fully funded, bats are in an especially dangerous position and we can’t afford not to do everything we can to help them. We will continue to raise the issue of white-nose syndrome on Capitol Hill so that our elected leaders understand the need to halt this disease. One hopeful note is that white-nose syndrome is a non-partisan issue. I have met with congressional leaders of both parties who understand the impacts of white-nose syndrome and want to help (I even had two Republican congressional offices ask me how to put up bat houses!).
Everyone can take steps to help bats. First and foremost is to stay out of caves and mines where bats are known or suspected to roost. This is especially important during winter months when bats are hibernating. Bats have limited fat reserves to keep them alive during the long winter – and bug-free – months. Once aroused, their metabolism speeds up and they burn vital calories. One of the main causes of death from white-nose syndrome is starvation, as the fungus wakes bats and they have no food available. Human disturbance only adds to this lethal problem.
Another way to help is by spreading the word about the importance of bats and the threat of white-nose syndrome. Urge your federal representative and Senators to support adequate funding for endangered species recovery efforts. This would benefit the listed Indiana bat and gray bat, both of which have been heavily impacted by the white-nose syndrome fungus, as well as other critically imperiled wildlife species.
And Steve and I will continue to provide a home for bats in our attic. Let’s hope we see some little browns this summer.