Just a couple of years ago, very little was known about the bats that inhabit Glacier National Park, but an ongoing inventory project has shed new light on the mysterious nocturnal creatures.
The project was led by Lisa Bate, a lead wildlife technician for the park who has specialized in birds most of her career. Bate gave a presentation on the project at last week’s Waterton-Glacier Science and History Day at the West Glacier Community Building.
“It’s been one of the highlights of my career, working on this project,” Bate said after describing for the audience the work-intensive process of locating bats, then using nets to capture them for inspection and then release.
But the work paid off.
During 2011 and 2012, 44 netting sites were set up in Glacier and Waterton parks, yielding 968 captures of nine species of bats. Three new species were added to Glacier’s inventory of mammals — the Yuma myotis bat, the California myotis bat and the Eastern red bat.
One major purpose of the project has been to determine if a fungus that is deadly to bats is present in the park.
“The good news is we found no sign of white nose syndrome in the park,” Bate said. “For the most part, the bats are in excellent health.”
Bat research turned out to be a challenging new pursuit for Bate, one that required the enlistment of Corie Lausen, an expert bat biologist who has worked in the field for 17 years, along with colleagues in Waterton — Barb Johnston and Cyndi Smith — and a small group of volunteers.
“It’s a whole new world to me because I’ve mostly done birds,” Bate said. But the endeavor has been fascinating to her.
“The more you realize what you don’t know about them, you want to know more about them,” said Bate, recalling the capture of a hoary bat, one of the larger and more elusive species.
“I was in awe — I had no idea that this bat was flying over my head,” she said.
Prior to netting, the project used acoustic detectors to determine if bats are present. The detectors can indicate the species that are present. More than 52,000 bat “passes” have been picked up by the detectors during the project.
“Until we catch them we can’t confirm that they’re here,” she said, noting that each bat species has unique vocalizations, in terms of frequencies and signal strength.
Based on detections, Bate has reason to believe there is another species present in the park that she described as the “grand prize” — Townsend’s big-eared bat.
Catching bats, however, involves hauling nets and other gear to strategically picked sites, such as bridges that are used as roosts by bats around the park.
“It’s really hard, having to arrange boats and pack strings” to carry at least 200 pounds of gear to each netting site, Bate said.
Netting involves using poles to extend nets with pulley systems up to 24 feet high. After that “it’s sort of a potluck” pursuit in capturing bats, Bate said. Often bats are flying and feeding well above the nets, but often they are caught.
“This can be a challenge, getting bats out of nets, but once you get it you get it,” Bate said.
“They’ll chew on you, but you’re always wearing gloves,” Bate said, adding that anyone who is working with bats must first be vaccinated for rabies. Out of the nearly 1,000 bats that have been captured, none with rabies were detected.
Captured bats are measured and inspected before release, with the researchers always looking for signs of Geomyces destructans, a cold-loving fungus that causes white nose syndrome.
“It is the most catastrophic mortality event known to wildlife in North America,” Bate said. The loss of an estimated 6 million bats in mostly Eastern states is attributed to white nose syndrome, a collapse so severe that it prompted an emergency petition for listing vulnerable bats under the Endangered Species Act.
In some species, particularly the little brown bat, white nose syndrome can lead to a colony mortality rate reaching 97 percent. The syndrome is relatively new and was initially a complete mystery to scientists. The Geomyces destructans fungus wasn’t identified as the culprit until late 2011.
Bate said research indicates that Eastern bats may be more susceptible to the fungus because their colonies are much larger, with high densities of bats hibernating in caves.
“That might turn out to be the saving grace for our bat populations out here,” she said, adding that Glacier’s bats do not hibernate in such high densities.
The bat inventory and monitoring project, which was mainly funded by the nonprofit Glacier National Park Conservancy, carries on this summer.
Bate planned to go bat netting at the bridge over the Middle Fork Flathead River at West Glacier later in the week.
“I think it might be a big brown bat roost,” she said with excitement in her eyes.
Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.
The project has involved setting up nets to capture bats at 44 locations in Glacier and Waterton national parks, including a boat trip to Goat Haunt on Waterton Lake. Project leader Lisa Bate, center, is accompanied by Courtney Raukar, Cori Lausen and Graham Neale.