Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Citizen bat scientists on the lookout for white-nose syndrome

 

April 11, 2019 | View PDF



Patty Kermoian has worked as a citizen bat scientist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) since the inception of the program in Haines in 2014.

“I might be weird but I find it very fun,” she said.

Kermoian is a retired ADFG biologist. She, along with her friend Sandy Barclay, also a former ADFG worker, drive from Chilkoot Lake to the end of Mud Bay road or from 31 Mile on the Haines Highway into town. Kermoian attaches an antenna to her car 45 minutes after sunset, and drives these routes at 20 miles per hour, picking up bat sounds, clicks and chirps, on a detection device. She and Barclay volunteer at least 10 times every season, a commitment that amounts to dozens of hours. They were called ‘super volunteers’ by Tory Rhoads, ADFG wildlife biologist. They are responsible for “keeping the program alive and well.”

This year, under the new threat of the bat fungal disease White-nose syndrome (WNS), Fish and Game is relying on citizens like Kermoian and Barclay to renew their support.

Two springs ago, biologists were caught off guard when WNS spread from Oklahoma to Washington, because mountains were thought to be a boundary for the disease.

“It’s a concern throughout the West now,” said Karen Boejwas, senior state wildlife biologist. “It’s unclear how quickly it’s spreading.”

WNS only grows on bats when they hibernate, degrading their muzzles and wing tissue. It causes bats to arouse more frequently during hibernation, forcing them to spend more energy than they are able to replenish in the winter, and ultimately causing them to perish from dehydration or starvation.

Boejwas said WNS has spread within a sixty-mile radius of its first detection in Washington. She said little browns are one of the most susceptible bat species, and, in some caves and mines in the east, 100 percent of those bat populations were destroyed. “It’s been really devastating,” said Boejwas.

In agricultural areas, “bats play a huge role in pest management,” said Boejwas.

If WNS depletes bat populations in Alaska, biologists believe that people would use more pesticides on their crops to replace the natural insect predator. Other possible effects of white-nose are harder to determine.

“Bats are the only predators of nocturnal flying insects in Alaska,” said Boejwas. Bats keep mosquito populations down, for example. “If you remove the predator then things that haven’t been pests could become pests, we don’t exactly know,” she said.

The non-game wildlife division at ADFG is small, and to detect bats—a small, cryptic species—stretches its already sparse resources.

“Using citizen scientists allows us to collect far more data than we would be able to if we were just using agency employees,” said Rhoads.

Already since 2014, when citizen scientists first started gathering data in the Chilkat Valley, they contributed to the discovery of a new species in the area: Lasiurus cinereus, known commonly as the hoary bat. The existence of migratory hoary bats in Alaska is so new that the internet hasn’t even caught up; most hoary bat websites omit the fact.

Though their contributions to Alaska bat data are significant, the daily work of citizen scientists can be tedious. For a long time, it’s difficult to hear the bats at all. Luckily, there are tenacious volunteers like Kermoian. “You do hear sounds, but they’re bat sounds, so it’s coming through the machine in a certain kind of cadence or rhythm. The more you drive the more familiar you get with it,” she said.

 
 

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