From the Front Lines in Pennsylvania

Much Like Susi…..I have never written a blog before, or ever even found myself chatting to anyone online other than emails…and most them are work related. Arrrg! All those emails that fill my inbox every day with death and disaster are enough to quell anyone’s spirit.

So, taking a look back several years ago at the state of Pennsylvania and our bat program, we had been concentrating on protecting significant hibernacula (underground caves and mines where bats spend the winter) from internal disturbances. We were having tremendous success. Bat numbers were on the rise, and even the endangered species we have in Pennsylvania, the Indiana bat, were increasing and spreading out. Things were going very well on that front and we started tracking the migrations of the Indiana bat and focusing on protecting those hard to find sites where the females gather together to raise their young (called maternity sites). In a state as large as Pennsylvania, to find a small group of the ~500 female Indiana bats total was a real success and quite a rare occurrence (I think needle in the haystack is truly appropriate). Getting used to flying in circles all night long without leaving your little cramped seat and electronic equipment everywhere around you in a small single-prop airplane…well, let’s just say there were some tough moments. But progress was enlightening and, each year, we learned more and more. We identified 19 known Indiana hibernacula over the years, and found nine individual maternity roosts for Indiana bats, with some maternity roosts containing more than 100 individual bats! Nocturnal life was good, and quiet for the most part.

Challenges for the bat world went up significantly when industrial wind farms came to our towns. To be documenting such consistently high levels of mortality for bats became a big issue for us. Everyone wants to support green energy, and to have this unsuspecting issue come right as momentum for renewable energy is gaining momentum was horrible timing. At the time, I remember thinking I could not see a worse scenario for bats and their conservation. To make matters worse, we had no real ideas why they seemed to be particularly susceptible at these facilities over other species, how to reduce the impacts, or even to be able to gauge how many bats are on the landscape and to determine if this is an unsustainable level of take.

It was actually at a wind energy meeting in Austin, Texas, that I shared a room with Al Hicks of New York’s Dept. of Environmental Conservation, and he was describing this strange white fungus they had found at a couple sites and remarking how the bat numbers there were greatly reduced, and how the roosting locations of those remaining were altered. I recall discussing with him that it would be paramount to examine surrounding sites to make sure they did not relocate, and then to return to these sites to gauge the extent of possible mortality. By the end of that next winter, the picture was grim, and the proverbial cat was out of the bag. White Nose Syndrome (WNS) was now firmly on our radar.

I had more than a year to mentally prepare myself for what was to come our way. WNS ravaged New York, Vermont and Massachusetts bat populations like nothing we had ever seen. By the time it reached Pennsylvania, the extent of the mortality was reaching 96 percent of all cave bats where it was found. We found 10 sites that first season in four counties, two of which were centrally located. Five of these sites were sites that contained the Indiana bat. As horrible as it was to see bats covered with fungus, dead on the floor where they simply died and fell down, to watch them fly out into freezing temperatures in the middle of winter….. it was even more difficult when I went back into these sites the following season. I have been to most of these sites many times, and have fond memories of counting or capturing thousands of bats. Just a single year after finding WNS, the majority of sites we have solid data on were experiencing a >99% mortality. I went into two sites this season that had thousands of bats before WNS, and found only six at one and only one at the other. A third site, after having WNS for two seasons, had only three bats remaining. One was a big brown, the other two were little browns and both them were covered in fungus. Not a single tri-colored or long-eared bat remains in those sites. All that time to prepare myself did not help!

This year, the spread continues both in our own state and heading fast and furious down the Appalachians. Only about one-third of our state remains clean as far as we know, but the site we have that contains nearly 75 percent of our hibernating Indiana bats is just five miles from a confirmed WNS site. To say I dread going there in early April is an understatement. I am hoping to video and photo document portions of this site to show my son what bat numbers used to be like back in the old days.

In conclusion, I will leave you with this descriptive and visual occurrence this winter. We found a coal mine this winter we never knew about before from concerned citizens reporting many flying and dead bats in this area. The concerned citizen pointed us towards an abandoned mine they knew of. We have nearly 5,000 abandoned mines, so it is not odd there are sites we don’t know of. My first trip there, I found about 4,000 bats in the first of several rooms near the opening. Several weeks later, when I returned again, there were less than a couple dozen live bats. Outside at the entrance, the smell of death was inescapable. There were carcasses rotting everywhere, clusters of dead rotting bats with barely live bats crawling on top of them, and piles containing hundreds of dead bats (see attached photo for just a glimpse of this).