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Bat Festival in Wauzeka draws a crowd
DNR BAT BIOLOGIST Jennifer Redell shows her Big Brown Bat to members of Prairie du Chien Cub Scouts 30 during Bat Fest in Wauzeka. Redell had given the group an overview of her work to help understand and develop strategies to combat the spread of White Nose Syndrome, which is devastating bat populations in America.

WAUZEKA - Almost 125 people attended Bat Festival, held by the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, in Wauzeka on Saturday, July 21. The festival offered informational displays, presentations by bat experts, live bat viewings, and tours of the Kickapoo Indian Caverns.

Mississippi Valley Conservancy (MVC) acquired the Kickapoo Indian Caverns last summer, and has permanently protected the land and caverns with a conservation easement. This allows the local treasure to be used for critical research about bats and White Nose Syndrome.

Carole Porter, last of the family that owned and operated the Kickapoo Indian Caverns as a tourist attraction, respected her mother and father’s wishes that the caverns be protected from further development and left in their pristine state.

“Being the last steward of my family’s property, I can now rest assured that my parents’ final wishes will indeed be granted. The Conservancy will properly maintain the integrity of the Caverns and surrounding forest, and we will be assured that it will be used for research and educational purposes.”

Tours of the cave led event participants into the beautiful and fascinating underground world the caverns offer. Tour guides talked about the history of the caverns, the crucial bat habitat, and used the cracks and fissures of the caverns to educate participants about the Driftless Region’s karst geology and the vulnerability of our groundwater.

Batty about bats

Jennifer Redell, WDNR Bat Biologist and Cave/Mine Specialist, kicked the day off talking to event participants gathered in Wauzeka’s beautiful old Century Hall about bats, and about White Nose Syndrome, which is devastating American bat populations.

Redell detailed that in North America, there are two groups of bat species. Tree bats are migratory and solitary, and do not hibernate. Cave bats hibernate in the winter, and leave the caves in the spring, summer and fall to live outside, eating insects such as mosquitoes. It is the cave bats which are so susceptible to White Nose Syndrome (WNS).

Redell says her work mainly involves two major areas of work – counting bats, and listening to bats. She demonstrated the use of the ‘Echolator,’ a device which scientists use to listen to the subsonic calls of bats and gain insights into what species they are hearing, and what kind of populations are present, based on volumes compared at the same locations, year-over-year.

Redell said E. Pipistrelle and the Northern Long Ear are the two most common species of cave bats. Tree bats tend to be more colorful in order to better blend in to the landscapes in which they live. Species of tree bats include Silver Haired, Hoary Bat, and Eastern Red.

“Bats are the boss when it comes to our schedules,” Redell explained. “Day or night, summer, winter, spring or fall, their activities determine what scientists like me do.”

Redell explained that for the bats that hibernate in the winter, hibernation starts in August. Before that, hibernating bats will eat ferociously, birth and fledge their young, and then prepare to hibernate once more. During winter, bats will choose a location to sleep, referred to as a ‘hibernaculum.’ The Kickapoo Indian Caverns is one such hibernaculum. During this time, bats do not eat, and cluster together for warmth.

There are 150 hibernacula in Wisconsin, with 90 percent of the state’s bats hibernating in just three of those locations. Almost all of the locations are in Southwest Wisconsin.

Redell explained that White Nose Syndrome is present in all the hibernacula in the state.

White Nose Syndrome

White Nose Syndrome is a devastating wildlife disease that has killed millions of hibernating bats since it first appeared in New York State in 2007. The disease has spread west into the United States and Canada at an alarming rate, and was recently confirmed in Washington, the only western state known to be affected.

The disease is named for the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which often appears when it infects the skin of the nose, ears and wings of hibernating bats. Hibernating bats shut their metabolisms down during hibernation, living off the body energy reserves gained in summer feeding.

WNS weakens the bats, and causes their metabolisms to speed up during hibernation, in order to maintain body warmth. Ultimately, the disease “wakes up” the hibernating bat, causing them to exit their cave early, while it is still cold and there are no insects for them to eat. This, in turn, often kills them.

Once the bats exit the cave in the spring, the fungus on their bodies will disappear. WNS is transmitted primarily from bat to bat, and bat to cave. Scientists believe that the fungus survives in the soil of caves and mines, and that healthy bats entering infected sites may contract WNS from the environment. They have also shown that it is possible for humans to inadvertently carry P. destructans spores on their clothes or equipment. There is, however, no evidence that the fungus or WNS harms people.

Impact of WNS

More than six million bats died in the first six years of the WNS outbreak, and millions more are in danger. WNS has caused the most dramatic decline of North American wildlife in over 100 years with potentially dire environmental consequences.

Up to 99 percent of bats in some WNS-infected sites die within a few years. WNS has resulted in severe population declines in many bat species, including the northern long-eared bat, the first bat to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Little brown bats, once the most common bat in the northeastern U.S. may be in danger of regional extinction within the next 10 years because of this disease.

Bats are an essential part of the environment. Bats play critical roles by eating insects, pollinating plants, spreading seeds, and more. Eating more than half of their body weight in insects each night, bats are the primary predators of night-flying insects. Many of these insects are serious crop or forest pests, or can spread disease to humans or livestock. Recent studies have concluded that losing our bats could cost us billions of dollars in increased pesticide use and agricultural damage each year.

The CDC of wildlife

In 1975, the federal government responded to the need for establishing national expertise in wildlife health by creating the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC). It is a science center of the U.S. Geological Survey, with specialized laboratories working to safeguard our nation’s wildlife.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has been a leading contributor to the interagency response to WNS since 2008. They perform fundamental research on bat ecology, fungal biology and WNS epidemiology and pathology. Studies conducted by the USGS led to the discovery of WNS in 2009, initial characterization and naming of the cold-loving fungus, and better understanding of how the pathogen spreads.

Efforts to stop the fungus from causing multiple species of bats into extinction are taking three major approaches. First, scientists are attempting to study the pathogen to see if there is a natural enemy of the fungus that could help to slow and stop its spread. Second, efforts are underway to learn how it might be possible to decontaminate hibernacula, and third, scientists are researching a vaccine that could be used to inoculate healthy bats against the disease.

Help protect bats

Citizens can help to protect bats in a variety of ways:

• stay out of sites where bats are hibernating

• decontaminate any gear and clothes used when entering a cave or mine

• learn more about bats and their value, and share what you know with others

Bats may use your property. Consider leaving live and dead trees with cracks and cavities to benefit bats and other wildlife.

 Volunteer – you can help protect bats on public lands by counting bats, using bat call detectors, and working on habitat projects.

If you find a bat that is sick, injured, or in a place where you don’t want it, contact your local wildlife agency.

Citizens can also do things in their yards that will help bats like putting up a bat house. The Wisconsin DNR’s website has detailed instructions for building and placing a bat house. People are urged to avoid pesticide and herbicide use, and to plant night blooming plants and shrubs to attract insects, such as phlox, four o’clocks, evening primrose, moon flower, salvias, nicotiana, and jasmine. Mulch and compost help to attract insects, and water features and rock piles provide habitat and critical access to water. People are also urged to remove burdock on their land as it can snag in bats wings and harm them. Last, people are urged to turn buckets over sideways to avoid drowning or trapping bats.