An illustration of a bat flying in the night sky
Madison McVeigh/CityLab

As the deadly White-Nose Syndrome continues to spread, advocates in Milwaukee, Austin, Detroit, D.C., and more are raising awareness and protecting these much-maligned mammals.

At dusk—under clouds intermittently spitting a soft drizzle—about 60 of the diehards remained. They had not been dissuaded by the day’s long lines, the “ick factor” of being close to “creepy critters,” or looking through microscopes at poop.

Abuzz with anticipation, they watched as biologists from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hoisted a net high into the tree branches alongside Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Lagoon. Darkness fell, and a small brown bat—about the size of a child’s palm—was caught. As biologists wearing headlamps and gloves rushed over to extract it, some in the crowd exclaimed: “I hope he’s not hurt!” “Oh, poor little guy. He’s probably terrified!”

The bat biologists quickly determined the species (Big Brown Bat) and sex (male). Then everyone crowded around the “processing table” to watch J. Paul White, of the Wisconsin DNR, measure the chirping creature and place him in a brown paper lunch sack on top of a scale. White announced the healthy juvenile weighed about 20 grams, or “eight pennies.” Dozens of cell phone cameras flashed before the bat was released from White’s grip. As it flapped away, fingers pointed to the night sky and one woman declared: “I just don’t understand why people are so afraid of them.”

Mission accomplished. Dispelling fears about U.S. bats—a vital part of our ecosystem now being decimated by a deadly disease—was a main goal of the Wisconsin Bat Fest held in the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory Domes in downtown Milwaukee. The event, which drew 2,160 attendees, included bat games, bat yoga, bat garden walks, and bat talks where fest-goers learned all sorts of fun bat facts: Bats are not rodents. They are the only flying mammals (flying squirrels just glide), and have their own order called Chiroptera. Bats can live 30 years. Most bats don’t have rabies. U.S. bats don’t drink blood. Many eat their body weight in insects every night.

Another surprise: Bats are city dwellers, too. Bats have existed in urban environments for years, but they’re hard to count and no one is exactly sure of their numbers. One thing’s for sure: Bats are dying by the millions and are in desperate need of healthy roosts.

Bats have survived for 50 million years. But biologists say mass mortalities from White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), a fungus-based disease, pose the biggest threat to the survival of North America’s 47 species of bats already contending with deforestation, wind turbines, pesticides, climate change, habitat destruction, and harassment by humans.  

The disease was introduced to North America from Europe, where it is not fatal to Old World bats. WNS was first discovered in a New York cave about a decade ago and has since spread in all directions, killing at least seven million bats and counting. It is now in at least 31 states and five Canadian providences. Two formerly robust species, the Little Brown Bat and the Tri-colored bat, are now being evaluated for the Endangered Species Act. Some conservationists are calling WNS the “worst wildlife disease outbreak ever in North America.”

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

So while scientists search for ways to control the disease, some conservationists have turned their attention to cities and launched online education and bat image makeover campaigns to make urban areas (and the humans within them) more bat-friendly.

To combat WNS, residents in both rural and urban areas are being asked to open their minds, hearts, and backyards to help bats survive. Bat events are popping up across the nation, from Washington State to Washington, D.C., where Bat Week 2017 is kicking off on October 24 with an exclusive Capitol Hill event to “bring policymakers, departmental leaders, and agricultural and conservation organizations together” to highlight bats’ impact on the economy as well as environment. In Texas, the 13th annual Bat Fest was held near the Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, where tourists regularly flock to see more than a million bats emerge to gorge on insects each night. Bat fests also took flight this summer in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and Missouri, and will culminate with the Great Lakes Bat Festival on September 23 at the Michigan Science Center in Detroit.

There are plenty of reasons to care about urban bats. They eat annoying mosquitoes, flies, and gnats that carry diseases. Bats gobble up June bugs, which turn into grubs destroying lawns and gardens. Bats pollinate some of our favorite foods. But they really shine as organic pest control, saving farmers roughly $23 billion a year. “U.S. bats are the primarily predators of nighttime insects (each) eating between 2,000 and 5,000 insects every night, including mosquitoes, and the moths and beetles that destroy our crops, our gardens and our forests,” says Rob Mies, the founder of Organization for Bat Conservation in Pontiac, Michigan. “So, we celebrate bats. We need them flying around everywhere eating tons of bugs!”

Rob Mies giving a presentation at Wisconsin Bat Fest (Marla Donato)

Tapping citizen bat enthusiasts

“We can’t be everywhere,” said Jennifer Redell, one of the Wisconsin DNR bat biologists. But average residents can pitch in though both low- and high-tech methods. This includes installing bat houses, planting bat gardens, and joining volunteer citizen scientist corps monitoring bats with high tech acoustic detectors. Citizen scientists are helping to track the creatures on foot and in kayaks through remote regions of Montana, Idaho, California, and even Alaska. Urban bat detection squads are on the streets of Milwaukee, Raleigh, and Washington, D.C. New York City has a rooftop garden study. Citizen scientists can plug the latest bat detectors—about the size of a large jump drive—into a cell phone or tablet. The detectors amplify, analyze, and record bat’s echolocation signals. Data is then submitted to scientists eager to create bat location maps.

Estimating bat populations is difficult, but “this isn’t because of a lack of interest or effort,” says Jonathan Reichard, the WNS Assistant National Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Reichard adds that calculating the total number of bats nationwide is a daunting proposition, open to debate partially because bats are elusive and highly mobile. Bats are easiest to tally while hibernating in caves and old mines where WNS is wiping out whole colonies, and has killed about 80 percent of hibernating bats in the northeast.  

Possible policy boosts

WNS has caught the attention of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat whose farm home is “not far from a bat cave…in rural central Vermont” noticed, “as bats disappear, mosquitos increase.” So the Vice Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee has vowed to lead efforts to fight this “pandemic.” Glenn Thompson, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania and a member of the House Agriculture Community, says  “bats provide significant benefits to agriculture and landowners rely upon them as a natural pesticide.”

Since 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has committed about $40 million to fund research, communication, outreach, and management to coordinate the national response to WNS. It’s not clear how much funding will be available in the future—or even in next year’s budget. The proposed House Appropriations bill included a recommendation to spend $4.5 million “to continue to search for a cure for white-nose syndrome in bats.” But wildlife and conservation get little attention in President Donald Trump's America First Budget Blueprint that supports a move to “leverage taxpayer investment with public and private resources.” The Bats for the Future Fund is a new public/private partnership launched in 2016 to provide grant funding for both existing and new treatments for WNS, with backing from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Shell Oil Company.

A fruit bat flies over the Sydney skyline at dusk. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

Meanwhile, scientists have been experimenting with decontaminating abandoned mines and developing a vaccine or probiotic to be spread by a gel or paste. So far nothing is ready to be deployed, Reichard says.

Even if a solution to White-Nose Syndrome is found, biologists say that the U.S. bat population will rebound slowly, if at all. Reichard describes “managing the disease to ensure healthy bat populations in the future” as a “race against the clock” while the disease rapidly spreads.  Many hibernation sites are contaminated and bats typically only produce one pup a year. Soon some species could be gone for good.

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