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Published October 29, 2010, 03:38 PM

Survey Finds More Bats Than Expected in ND

Researchers from North Dakota State University will spend Halloween weekend showing experts the results of what is believed to be the state's first survey of bats. It's a population that's bigger than expected.

By: Dave Kolpack, Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Researchers from North Dakota State University will spend Halloween weekend showing experts the results of what is believed to be the state's first survey of bats. It's a population that's bigger than expected.

Early results show a bountiful batch in a state with few of the animals' favorite roosting spots, such as caves and trees. Graduate student Paul Barnhart discovered thousands of bats in an abandoned barn in western North Dakota.

"Walking in there, all the bats started yelling and it was just deafening," Barnhart said. "I loved it. We took pictures and thought, 'This is our Mecca right here.'"

Barnhart is part of a team led by biological researcher Erin Gillam. The researchers conducted the survey to learn more about how the state's bats hibernate and gain a better understanding of a fungal disease that has killed more than a million bats in at least 11 states.

Gillam said the results exceeded expectations but that may be because no one had tried to count the state's bats before.

"It was assumed the bat population was sparse because there's so much prairie," she said.

Gillam and some of her students are participating in the North American Society for Bat Research symposium that ends this weekend in Denver. Much of the conference is dedicated to discussion of white-nose syndrome, a disease first seen in upstate New York in 2006.

The fungus grows on the nose, wings and ears, and some scientists believe the irritation causes bats to wake often during hibernation and burn so much energy that they starve before spring. Fear of the illness spreading has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to bar entry to caves in several states where the disease has not been confirmed, including South Dakota.

Although it's not clear how the disease is spread, Gillam believes it will eventually reach the Dakotas.

"If we have hibernating bat populations we need to know about those so we can protect them to the best of our ability," Gillam said.

The North Dakota survey, funded by the state Game and Fish Department, began in 2009. Barnhart, who calls bats "just the cutest things ever," spent last summer scouting the state and wound up catching and releasing about 200 bats.

Hot spots for bat activity included Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Missouri River Valley and the Pembina Gorge. In a state known for having few trees, Barnhart jokes he could have assigned a name to every one after scouring them for flying mammals.

Barnhart catches bats in so-called mist nets, which are strong enough to corral them but light enough to spare them from injury. After weighing the bats and checking their condition, he glues harmless glow sticks to their backs to help with future detection.

There were nights when Barnhart caught 30 bats at a time, which was a surprise to Gillam and other researchers in the department. Barnhart talks about his bat-bagging skills with obvious pride.

"If you want to find bats, give me a call. I'll find you bats," he said, smiling.

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