Wyoming's Black Hills Are An Oasis For An Endangered Bat…But A Killer Fungus Is Creeping Closer

Jul 27, 2018

A researcher holds a long eared bat with latex gloves and puts it in a paper bag. Everything has to be disposable so they don't spread white nose syndrome to other bats.
Credit Melodie Edwards

University of Wyoming bat researchers Ellen Whittle and Caitlin Gorden’s workday starts just before nightfall. First, Gorden says, they put up big nets across ponds where bats like to come to get a drink of water. 

Being smarter than a bat isn’t easy though. Often, they don’t catch a thing.

“It’s very frustrating sometimes how agile they are because they see the nets, they bounce around them and never get caught.”

And catching the northern long-eared bat is a big priority. They’re on the endangered species list, and in the eastern U.S., no logging or mining is allowed in their habitat.

Researchers Ellen Whittle (left) and Caitlin Gorden set up mist nets across a small pond where bats come at night to get a drink of water.
Credit Melodie Edwards

But driving into this pond in the Black Hills, we saw lots of signs that read, “Caution: Logging Trucks.” And the worry is that loggers are cutting down important old ponderosa pine trees called maternity roosts where the northern long-eared bat gives birth and raises her pups. The race is on to locate these trees and protect them.

To do that, the researchers need to follow the females back to the trees. So tonight, when Whittle and Gorden catch the pregnant and lactating females, they’ll glue tiny transmitters to their backs and follow their signals.

Whittle says, “And if there are many multiple bats coming out of that tree, it’s a good indication it’s a maternity roost, which means it’s a very important site. It’s a tree that should be protected, especially at the critical time of year.”

And that critical time is right now.

After the nets are up, we wait for the sun to set in the ponderosa and oak forest, then we check the nets.

“The bats are flying!” Gorden shouts. “The bats are out!”

Whittle wades out to the nets, her headlamp blazing.

“This is a good number of bats and early too,” she calls back.

Already, several species of bats thrash in the nets: western small-footed, big brown, little brown, hoary, and, yes, northern long-eared. White-nose syndrome affects several species in the U.S., so it’s vital to see if any of these bats have the fungus.

Researcher Caitlin Gorden carefully unhooks a bat's finger hooks from the fine weave of a mist net.
Credit Melodie Edwards

The researchers start extracting the tiny animals from the fine nets with mini crochet hooks. Whittle shows me one that’s three times larger than the others, a female hoary bat with silver tipped fur and an electric hiss.

Whittle sweet talks right back at her. “Alright, babe, we’ll get you out of here as soon as we can, alright?”

“She potentially has already given birth and has some pups to attend to,” Whittle tells me. “So we don’t want to keep her too long.” 

We put the hoary bat in a paper bag to measure her and check her wings for fungus scars. Lined up are a dozen more paper bags with bats inside, waiting their turn. All told, we catch 21 bats from seven different species. But out of those, only one is a mama northern long-eared.

Ian Abernethy is the lead scientist on this project. He says he’s comforted that the area’s logging doesn’t appear to be affecting the bats too much, especially since, he says, “the Black Hills National Forest is one of the most heavily logged national forest units in the lower 48."

He says no one knows where Wyoming’s bats are hibernating in the winter, but it appears they are not doing it by the millions in caves or mines the way they do out east. Instead, they likely hibernate in the dozens in boulder fields or cliffs. He says since the fungus mostly spreads bat-to-bat, that could be one reason the fungus hasn’t struck out west. But he says, now that it’s been discovered at Fort Laramie less than 200 miles away and at Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota only 65 miles away, it may just be a matter of time.

Abernethy says the world needs bats because they eat more than their body weight in bugs each night.

“They prevent an estimated $3 billion of economic loss to agricultural resources every year.”

Abernethy says the good news is that Black Hills National Forest is working to protect this bat and even helped fund his study.

A row of paper bags with bats inside awaits processing.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Black Hills National Forest wildlife biologist Matt Stefanich admits, “We know we’re having an impact. We know that bats are being disturbed or killed from our activities.” When he says activities, he means logging. “What we need to do is minimize that to the extent that we can.”

Stefanich says, the agency is actively protecting any ponderosas that researchers say the female northerns use to give birth and raise pups in, in hopes of growing their population.

“We can go into a timber stand and construct a buffer zone around those maternity roosts and not log in those areas.”

Right now, Stefanich says, that buffer zone is 150 feet but may need to be larger. Loggers often chop out stands of dead ponderosas so they don’t fall on workers or equipment. Eventually, the agency may need to ban that as well.

Stefanich says the local community relies on logging, though, and shutting it down altogether isn’t an option right now, even with white-nose syndrome swiftly closing in.

Back at the pond, researcher Ellen Whittle finishes measuring a northern long-eared bat. She stands up and, by the light of her headlamp, you can see the bat squirming wildly in her hand.

Then, she sets him free.

“And he’s gone,” she says, “just like that.”