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Catching a Bat!

BioBlitz team members travel deep into the forests to find the most ideal place to study threatened bats in Flathead Valley.

By Ruth Midgley

To catch a bat you have to think and act like a bat. At least, this is what I learned when I spent three nights catching bats in the remote wilderness of the Flathead River Valley at the 2014 Flathead BioBlitz .

Led by bat specialist Cori Lausen, along with a team of biologists and bat enthusiasts I sacrificed sleep and the comforts of home to catch and inventory these fascinating creatures of the night.

Located in the southeastern portion of British Columbia (B.C.) the Flathead is one of North America’s last unsettled valleys. It is remote, rugged, and has many small rivers, lagoons and caves that bats love to frequent. In short, it offers the perfect bat habitat for both summer and winter seasons.

According to Lausen, gaining information about bats in the Flathead may provide important information about how to stop the spread of white-nose syndrome—a disease that has wiped out between 5.7 million to 6.7 million bats in North America but which has not yet arrived in B.C.

“Once we’ve established what bats are present in the Flathead,” explained Lausen. “We will know what types of habitats need to be protected for bat populations to recover following white nose die-back, and optimistically we may be able to help bats survive the disease.”

Catching Bats

Each evening of the Flathead BioBlitz, the team traveled deep into the forests to find the most ideal place to set up bat nets.

Nothing got in the way of Lausen’s team: if the best place for a net was on the other side of a river they got out their chest waders and found a way to cross the water. Even setting up a net at the bottom of a gorge was not an insurmountable challenge for this zealous team.

Cori Lausen and her team set up bat nets for the 2014 Flathead BioBlitz. Video by Leanne Allison

From the moment a bat was caught to its final release they were treated like VIPs. Once captured a bat was put in a cloth bag and placed in a special “bat-necklaces”. The necklace is placed around a person’s neck where the bat is kept warm and calm until they were ready to be measured and recorded. Mother bats were always first to be handled and were sometimes hand-fed highly nutritious grubs to ensure they flew home to their waiting pups with full bellies.

To limit the spread of white-nose syndrome, every bat was handled with a new pair of latex gloves and kept in individual cloth bags. Although the disease has not yet reached as far west as the Flathead, Lausen says it’s probably only a matter of time.

Hurray for Hoary!

On the last night at around 2am, a message came through on the walkie-talkie that was met with whoops and cheers: “We’ve got a Hoary!”

Hoary bats have beautiful white tipped fur and are the largest bat found in Canada, boasting a wingspan of 43 cm. Everyone eagerly gathered around for a glimpse of this beautiful, hard to catch bat. It was the first time a hoary had been caught in the area, making it the most exciting catch of the BioBlitz.

By the end of the three nights of netting seven different species were recorded including the first-time catch of the hoary and silver-backed.

Critical to the Y2Y Vision

Y2Y Wildsight, Sierra Club BC and Canadian Parks and Wilderness BC are working to protect the Flathead permanently with a National Park in the southeastern one-third and a Wildlife Management Area in the rest of the valley to connect it to Banff National Park. This unique landscape is where wildlife, plants and rivers converge making it one of the most important valleys to protect in North America.

Mining and energy development is prohibited in the Flathead but the globally-significant valley is now under threat from intensive logging and road-building.

“We’re optimistic that the first extensive bat inventory in the Flathead will lead to a greater understanding of how to help these endangered bats survive,” said Y2Y’s Senior Conservation Program Manager, Sarah Cox. “This work underscores the biological importance of the Flathead River Valley and the urgent need to protect it permanently.”