October is a time for bats. As the crisp fall air descends, plastic bats swing from trees and confectioners make treats in their little winged shapes. The little spooky creatures even have an entire week leading up to Halloween dedicated to them: International Bat Week. Yet they remain largely misunderstood.
Truth be told, bats are essential to humans; without them, we probably wouldn’t have such things like avocados, chocolate, and tequila. Of the more than 1,390 species of bats throughout the world, Bat Conservation International considers many of them “keystone species,” because of their vital roles as seed dispersers and pollinators in our ecosystem.
Plus, insectivorous bats help control pesky insects like mosquitos, as well as beetles and moths that destroy crops. The bat conservation group estimates their value to agriculture may be as high as $53 billion a year.
Still, the 15 species of bats regional to the Pacific Northwest are suffering. Researchers at Oregon State University have published a new study showing that one, the hoary bat—named for its unique, frosted fur—has seen a steady population decline in the Pacific Northwest. That’s likely because of collisions with wind turbines. On top of that, some species, such as the little brown bat, have been decimated from a mysterious disease called White Nose Syndrome. These issues are compounded by how few pups a bat has per year.
So what to do about disappearing bats? Here are five suggestions from experts for recovering bat populations.
1. Educate about bats, and start young
Saving bats and preserving the multitude of benefits they bring has to start with the narrative we tell about them.
First we need to understand what they are—and what aren’t. Many see bats as flying rodents, when in fact these dog-faced mammals are closely related to humans. Their wings, in fact, are a variation on the human hand.
We tend to avoid bats because we fear them – or at least fear what they might be carrying: rabies. Yet, Dr. Thomas Rodhouse, lead researcher on the Oregon State study, says the risk of rabies is lower than you might think, especially if you learn the proper, respectful bat-handling techniques.
A disproportionate fear of bats can also be addressed in how we educate children about them. With this in mind, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife provides education trunks that teachers and parents can rent.
“We have actual specimens of bats preserved for kids to see up close,” says Rachel Blomker, communications manager in public affairs for the department. “We’ve got bat skeletons, and it’s interesting a lot of folks think bats are like flying mice, but actually bats are more related to humans than to rodents. It’s really cool then to get kids thinking about the importance of bats and just keeping an eye out and being more aware of the need for bats.”
2. Recover and preserve bat habitat
Bats love river valleys, where the insects on which they feast are the most plentiful. As a result, preserving the habitat there can be key for strengthening bat resiliency, Rodhouse says.
“If there’s one thing we could do to help hoary bats, it’s plant and preserve big cottonwoods along river valleys. That’s a habitat strategy that could be considered a mitigation to offset the kinds of losses going on,” Rodhouse said.
Another suggestion to aiding bats is retaining the snags in wooded areas, Rodhouse said. Bats roost in the sloughed bark of these hollow, decaying trees and will often raise their babies there during the summer—so, leave those dead limbs in your yard if you can.
3. Plan bat-friendly urban spaces
Bats have learned how to use urban areas to their advantage. This is why we often encounter them using spaces in our homes and around other man-made structures such as bridges. But by building awareness, we can accommodate bats in ways that help them thrive while also preventing an unexpected encounter.
At home, installing bat boxes or small wooden bat houses, deters bats from entering your home. Unfortunately, hoary bats don’t use these, but for species in the area such as the little brown bat, they can be a great way to promote peaceful coexistence.
4. Report bat sightings
Bats are elusive and hard to study. Species in Pacific Northwest tend to hibernate in smaller groups than those in the east—making them difficult to locate, Blomker says.
She suggests that one of the most helpful things a person can do is help track and monitor bats—especially if they are roosting in spaces on your private property. That way, biologists can come out, check on the colonies and better understand how they live.
“We have an online reporting tool … that has helped us quite a bit; we had our first case of WNS found east of the cascades in Washington just last month,” Blomker said.
A private land owner had reported a colony of 750 bats in his barn in addition to some dead ones that tested positive for White Nose Syndrome, a devastating, cold-loving fungus that eats away bat wings as they hibernate, wakes them up early from torpor, weakens bats and causes them to starve to death.
5. Support the efforts of conservation groups
Dr. Winifred Frick, chief scientist with Bat Conservation International suggests people seeking to help preserve the population look for opportunities to fund such work.
By becoming a member of Bat Conservation International, for example, you help scientists address threats like turbines and the mysterious White Nose Syndrome. White Nose Syndrome is a particular concern because it has killed an estimated 6.7 billion bats since 2009, and scientists are still unsure how the fungus that causes the disease spreads and whether it can be eradicated.
A donation also helps fund bat educational programs, habitat restoration, and further bat research. In the Pacific Northwest, a nonprofit called Bats Northwest, works to educate the public about bats, teams up with government biologists to protect them, and promotes responsible actions in human-bat conflict.
Conservation groups like these also ally with industry groups to promote corporate accountability. The bat conservation group has been working closely with the wind energy industry for more than 15 years, especially after 2011 data revealed that about 450,000 bat fatalities per year occurred at wind facilities, with hoary bats accounting for 50% of the fatalities.
“We’ve done a lot of work trying to identify different solutions including determining if it’s possible to change the wind and wind turbine blade spin to reduce the number of fatalities,” Frick said. “And technological solutions like acoustic deterrents that could potentially deter bats from flying near the turbine blades” in the first place.
Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor with a specialty in arts & culture, science, and lifestyle journalism. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Thrillist and Leafly, among others.