Sunday, July 13, 2014

A century to recover

July 21. 2013 3:44AM

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I received an email from a reader letting me know that her husband has been seeing a bat fly over their field at dusk.

She wrote to me as if the sighting is newsworthy, and it is.

That’s because bat numbers have rapidly dropped to the point where they no longer are a common sight in the summertime sky.

Today, just seeing a single bat is something to get excited about, and that excitement is evidence of just how serious the situation is.

The bat decline is so severe that chances are we will not see them come back in our lifetime.

Our children may not see it either.

In fact, Cal Butchkoski, who serves as a mammologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said it could take 100 years for a rebound in the bat population to occur. And that’s assuming that the reason why bats are declining — white-nose syndrome — were to suddenly disappear.

Unfortunately, that time does not appear to be on the horizon.

White-nose syndrome was first found in New York in 2006, and discovered in Pennsylvania four years later. Currently, it’s found in 22 states and five Canadian provinces, and the fungal infection has been devastating to bat populations. It kills bats by causing them to awaken in the winter and use up valuable energy reserves to the point where they basically starve to death.

Some of our once most-common bats, such as the little brown bat, have been hit particularly hard.

Even worse is the fact that there isn’t any way to treat or prevent the disease.

But that hasn’t stopped the PGC from trying to save bats. It seems the agency is focusing its efforts on protecting those bats that have, so far, been able to survive white-nose. Possible methods include restricting caving activity in winter. Erecting gates on the entrances of caves and mines is another, such as the project going on right now at an old railroad tunnel on State Game Lands in Rice Township. A third option being considered is protecting small hibernation sites — those that used to be an afterthought when bats were plentiful.

I say yes to them all.

But it doesn’t have to end there.

I’d like to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list those bat species that have significantly dropped as federally threatened or endangered, affording the small mammals and their habitat even more protection.

Sound drastic? Not hardly.

Drastic is when an abandoned mine that used to harbor 35,000 bats just a few years ago now only holds 155.

That’s what PGC biologists discovered in a mine in Blair County this past winter.

So let’s assume all these protections are enacted and bats are listed as a federally endangered species. Why will it still take so long — a century — for bats to recover?

Well, according to Butchkoski, bats reproduce at a painfully slow rate — one pup per year. And obviously, like anything in the wild, not all of them survive and are recruited into the population.

Consider the mine in Blair County. Of those 155 bats, assume that half are female and reproduce. That would equate to roughly 78 young in a single year. Assume that an average of 60 survive, and in one year the bat population would increase from 155 to 215. Add another year and that number would jump to around 300.

At that rate, it’s going to take a lot of years to get back to the original number of 35,000.

It’s going to take at least 100 years.

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