Everyone can help save Alberta's bats


Cori Lausen
Director of Bat Conservation





Alberta has more than just oil and gas underground — it also has the largest bat hibernation site ever found in the boreal forest in Western Canada.

Read this article on the Edmonton Journal.

Hundreds of bats hibernate in a muddy cave carved out of bedrock by weak sulphuric acid northeast of Edmonton. It may not sound like the most luxurious living space, but for now it is safe. It may not be for much longer.

A bat-killing fungal disease called white-nose syndrome (WNS) has been steadily marching west. Last spring, it showed up for the first time in Manitoba, Wyoming and Minnesota. But what keeps me up at night is the thought of the fungus making giant leaps across the West rather than a slow advance.

I worry because bats don’t just rely on their amazing flight skills to move. They are equally adept at hitching rides on anything from a transport truck to a camper van. Bats can squeeze into the tiniest locations — they only need a crack as big as their skull to squeeze through. We’ve had reports of them hiding in rolled-up camper van awnings, patio umbrellas and tent trailers. Transport truck trailers are a particularly inviting ride. All of this means we may have far less time than we think to prepare for the arrival of WNS in western Canada.

The WNS fungus was first found in North America in New York State in 2006 and has killed millions of eastern bats since then. Infected bats represent an ever-growing source of fungal spores that could be transferred to a new location.

Thanks to our field research and work with intrepid cavers, we know most western bats do not gather in large groups to hibernate like their eastern cousins. Alberta bat caves are home to typically a few hundred bats, but eastern caves can hold tens of thousands. This difference could slow the spread of the disease, which rouses bats during hibernation, causing them to waste valuable energy and scarce fat reserves. But we will only be able to confirm that if we have good intelligence on population numbers and distribution before and after the arrival of WNS.

These differences also mean potential treatments for WNS being tested in the east are unlikely to help western bats due to the need to apply the measures during winter in hibernacula.

Together with scientists at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., I have been working on a probiotic treatment for bat wings that can arm bats to fight off the fungal infection. The trick is the treatment needs to be applied as bats enter and leave nursery roosts, which is why we are working with people across the province to locate such roosts through programs like the Alberta Community Bat Program (albertabats.ca).

Bats play an enormously important role in ecosystems. They eat millions of insects and their role in controlling bug populations influences everything from fish diversity to the spread of insect-borne diseases. Their insect control services are particularly valuable to agriculture and forestry.

That’s why we need all hands on deck to help bats. You can help by preserving ideal bat habitats like old or dead standing trees and outbuildings for them to roost in during summer when they raise young. Help us buy time to prepare for WNS by spreading the word about keeping hatches and awnings closed at night on vehicles commuting long distances.

Governments need to quickly rise to the occasion to ensure an effective WNS response. Unfortunately, government wheels often turn more slowly than the wheels of a transport truck carrying infected bats from Ontario to Alberta.

So the question is, which will arrive first in Western Canada — a strong, co-ordinated and well-resourced plan to deal with the arrival of WNS, or the disease itself?

Dr. Cori Lausen is a conservation research biologist with WCS Canada. She has been actively working on bat conservation issues in Western Canada for more than 20 years.

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