You probably don’t think much about bats. They’re kind of creepy, only come out at night, and are infected with rabies. (Okay, that last bit isn't true; fewer than 10 people in the past 50 years have contracted rabies from bats.) But they’re also protecting you from mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis, both of which are expected to start infecting humans earlier this summer than in past years, owing to a warm winter and spring.
Bats can eat their body weight in mosquitoes in a single night, ridding your yard of thousands of the pesky bloodsuckers without your having to lift a finger. Not only that, but these winged mammals eat insects that prey on food crops, which means lower food prices at the store. In fact, it's estimated that bats save farmers an estimated $22 billion every year.
Yet bats are under serious threat, and scientists from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) want you to know that. A disease called white-nose syndrome has killed millions of bats in the past few years, and the CBD is pushing the federal government to do something to reverse dying populations.
The disease was first discovered in New York state in 2006. It leaves powdery white splotches on bats' noses and causes them to wake up from hibernation early and head out of their caves in search of food that isn't yet available. Scientists don't know whether it's the fungus or the futile hunt for food that kills the bats.
According to the CBD, the disease hasn’t yet spread from the East Coast, where it originated, to states in the western U.S., but they claim that some departments within the U.S. Forest Service aren’t taking enough precautionary measures to ensure the safety of bats in the West. Such measures include things like closing caves to tourists in areas where the disease is rampant so they don’t spread the disease by carrying fungal spores into the caves on their clothing and gear. The National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Forest Service, and individual states have already closed a number of caves to tourists to prevent the spread of the disease.
Not only is the Forest Service not taking the correct measures, the group claims, but it's also withholding public documents that outline other steps that could be taken. So the CBD is suing the agency to release them. “The Forest Service should be making an effort to show the public what it knows or what it doesn’t,” Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate for the group, told Gannett News Service.
In addition to avoiding recreational visits to caves, you can save bats by setting up a safe haven for them in your back yard. Put up a bat house on your property, which you can buy from one of these vendors whose houses meet the criteria of Bat Conservation International. And consider adding a garden pond or birdbath in an open space so bats that frequent your yard have access to fresh water.
Photo: (cc) USFWSHQ/flickr