Wildlife groups and government agencies are trying to mobilize sharp-eyed humans for Colorado Bat Watch, a campaign launched Monday to help biologists find bat roosting sites fast enough to save bats from proliferating perils, including the deadly white-nose fungus.
The idea is to be able to vaccinate bats while they’re hanging about during the daytime as soon as possible.
This emerging mission requires statewide public participation because bat roosts can be so hard to spot, overwhelming scientific capacities, according to the coordinators of the Bat Watch, among the first in the West as the fungus spreads.
Training online at www.coloradobatwatch.org takes about 15 minutes for participants to identify bat roosting sites in buildings, caves, abandoned mine shafts, under talus on mountainsides, under bridges, in culverts. About 100 people have signed up as of Monday morning.
An online portal allows quick communication of locations and photo sharing to a state database used by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and federal U.S. Geological Survey teams monitoring bats. A smartphone app in the works may speed the process.
“We want to get thousands of people out there uploading sightings,” said Megan Mueller, a conservation biologist with the Denver-based wildlife and habitat restoration group Rocky Mountain Wild, which led the launch by a coalition of agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State University-based Colorado Natural Heritage Program.
“Researchers are racing to test vaccines that could help bats survive white-nose syndrome,” Mueller said. The plan is to infuse the vaccine into a jelly, which then could be applied at roosting sites where bats hang about mating, raising their young, grooming each other and hibernating.
Bats eat mosquitos, flies and other bugs, helping to keep insect populations in balance. But bat populations have been on a downward slide around the United States due to increasing challenges, including insect population declines and the use of pesticides. The most deadly threat in recent years has been the white-nose fungus that attacks bats during hibernation and sucks nutrients and water out of their bodies, causing them to starve. Millions have died in the East and Midwest. In Colorado, starving fungus-afflicted bats typically abort their hibernation early due to hunger, darting out of their roosts to try to find bugs only to die in spring snowstorms.
Data that public bat finders supply will help guide biologists, project leaders said. For example, biologists are interested in roosts that serve as the equivalents of maternity wards for bat colonies. These could be priority sites for introducing vaccines.
“They’re like flying puppies. Some people are scared of them but I like them. And they’re worth an insane amount of money for agriculture,” said CSU graduate Wyatt Ortega, 25, who helped develop the bat watch program. “They hold up so many other things in Colorado and other states and all over the world. It’s like, if one domino falls, everything else could fall.”
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