By Lori Duff
It was the dead of winter in 2008 when bat carcasses began appearing on the driveways and lawns of Vermont residents across the state. Mysteriously, hibernating bats began awakening in droves, flying into the night, and dying in sub-zero temperatures. Others dropped to their death in caves, leaving the floors littered with bones.
This marked the beginning of an epidemic, soon identified as white-nose syndrome. Named for the white fluffy fungus appearing on the muzzles and wings of hibernating bats, the syndrome causes them to awaken from their deep winter sleep. This, in turn, increases their metabolic rate, reduces their energy stores, and sends them out in search of food—leading them to certain death.
The highly infectious disease has now decimated Vermont’s most common bat species by about 90 percent. And because one bat can eat up to half its body weight in insects each night, their loss has a direct impact on the balance of our ecosystems.
Scientists are scrambling to research and understand the disease. In the meantime, forest management decisions made by landowners can directly impact bats’ survival.
Of all the bats in Vermont, it is the tiny Northern Long-Eared Bat that has declined the most and needs the help of forestland owners and managers. In the past it was one of the most common of the state’s six hibernating bats. Now, with a loss of up to 98% of its population, it is the rarest, said Scott Darling, biologist for the Vermont Department of Fish and
Wildlife. “The numbers are so low, we fear they might blink out.”
The federal government has listed the Northern Long-Eared Bat as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Because the bat is so closely associated with forests, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued an interim rule for forest management decisions in April. The final rule is expected at the end of this year and will be available on the agency’s website.
“For most people, a bat is a bat is a bat,” said Darling. “But bats have different feeding niches. The Northern Long-Eared Bat can fly through cluttered stands of trees and feed on forest pests where other bats cannot…It’s a pretty significant nighttime predator of our forest insects.”
If it disappears, there is no other bat in the state that can duplicate its role.
This federal designation places new requirements on owners of forested land containing habitat critical to the survival of the Northern Long-Eared Bat, including roosting trees, where bats sleep, and hibernation sites (also known as ‘hibernacula’).
VLT has reached out to landowners whose property is close to a known Northern Long-Eared Bat hibernacula or roost tree to inform them of the new regulations and offer information on conserving bat habitat. “Landowners are critical partners in the long-term recovery of the species and their management decisions can have a great impact on the survival of the bat,” said Caitlin Cusack, a VLT forester.
Bats give birth in June, returning to the same summer locations to form a maternity colony. They look for cavities and crevices in trees where they roost and have their young (the Northern Long- Eared Bat births just one pup per year).
The new rule prevents interference with known, occupied roost trees from June 1-July 31 and prevents clearcutting (or similar harvesting methods) within a quarter-mile radius of a known, occupied roost tree during the same time period.
Landowners can look for potential roost trees by identifying certain characteristics: small or large cavities and loose bark (found on mature maples, shagbark hickory, and large, dead pine).
Hibernacula are also necessary for bats’ survival. The rule restricts harvesting trees within a quarter-mile radius of a known hibernation site.
Modifying management goals in these areas should not affect enrollment in Current Use programs. Landowners with specific Current Use questions can contact the Current Use Division at (802) 828-5860.
Andy Carlo of Fountains Forestry is managing a VLT-conserved property in Southern Vermont near a Northern Long-Eared Bat hibernacula. Like other foresters, he is working through the regulations, delineating the quarter-mile radius on his map, and figuring out what he can and cannot do.
He’s quick to say he’s not an expert at the new regulations but at the same time he’s happy to comply and is working hard to do so. Like many Vermonters, the owner of the land has a strong environmental ethic and believes in doing the right thing for wildlife. “If that’s what’s needed to help with the bats, that’s what we have to do,” said Carlo.
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is developing guidelines for landowners that offer practical, effective measures to further improve bat habitat. VLT staff are available to answer questions about compliance, help with the forest management review process, and advise landowners on how to enhance bat habitat in general. Contact your Regional Stewardship Manager to learn more; additional information can also be found at vtfishandwildlife.com/learn_more/living_with_wildlife/got_bats.