In Glacier, visitors spend an evening with some flying friends: bats

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Wildlife biologists examine a bat during Glacier Nation Park’s “Going Batty” field trip last week. (Jeremy Weber photo)

Locals and tourists got the chance to get up close and personal with some Glacier National Park wildlife last week, but it wasn’t bears, wolves, moose or mountain goats — it was bats.

More than a dozen intrepid souls joined wildlife researchers Lisa Bate, Chris Hammond and Lewis Young as Glacier National Park hosted it’s “Going Batty” field trip at Quarter Circle Bridge Wednesday.

The trip was designed to teach participants about bats and some of the threats they face and give them the chance to observe bats captured in mist nets on McDonald Creek.

Little was known about the bat population inside the park until research into the subject began in 2010. Since then, it has been discovered that Glacier National Park is home to nine species of bats, five more than was thought before the studies began.

The studies were prompted by the need to survey the bat population throughout the United States as bats in this country battle the effects of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that has been decimating bat populations for more than a decade.

First discovered in a cave in New York in 2007, white-nose syndrome is thought to have originated in Europe and was brought to the U.S. by cavers in 2006.

Since it’s introduction to North America, white-nose syndrome has been wreaking havoc on bat populations here.

“It has killed 6 to 7 million bats in the U.S. and has been found in 34 U.S. states and seven Canadian provinces,” retired Forest Service biologist Lewis Young said. “It was recently found in California, but so far, it hasn’t been found in Montana.”

The condition is named for a distinctive fungal growth around the muzzles and on the wings of hibernating bats and is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which colonizes the bat’s skin. This cold-loving fungus infects bats during hibernation, when the bats reduce their metabolic rate and lower their body temperature to save energy over winter. Hibernating bats affected by the syndrome wake up frequently, which results in them using up fat reserves and dying of starvation before spring arrives.

Glacier Park’s biologists are hoping their studies will help determine what has been keeping the sickness from spreading into the area so that ways might be found to battle additional spread of the syndrome.

Helping lead that research in Glacier Park is biologist Lisa Bate, who said conditions for capturing and studying bats were nearly ideal Wednesday evening.

“If the temperature is below 50 we won’t trap because bats will roost and not feed because insect activity drops to the point where it’s not worth the effort for them to hunt,” she said. “Also, we have a much better result when it is cloudy or a new moon. People think bats can’t see well, but they are able to see our nets in the moonlight and avoid them. It works much better when it is darker.”

The conditions were good Wednesday, as more than a dozen bats were quickly caught in the researcher’s nets. The bats were quickly examined, measured and weighed before being released back into the night.

Bate said the bat research will continue in the park so that if white-nose syndrome does appear there, biologists will have a better idea of how the bat population is being affected.

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