There is a race to save the Pennsylvania cave bats that are dying at an unprecedented rate.
According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 6 million bats have died from WNS, or White Nose Syndrome, and the number is still climbing.
This may be the most devastating wildlife disease to ever hit North America, and it’s pushing the cave bat populations toward extinction. For example in Pennsylvania, the Northern Long-eared bat population has been reduced by 98 percent with the Little Brown and Pipistrelle bats not far behind at 90-95 percent.
Eagle Scout candidate and local environmental steward, Conner Zitzelberger, is working with Parker Dam State Park Environmental Education Specialist, Carey Huber, in a race to conserve the bat populations. Over the past several years, the current residents used the summer roosting habitat within the park’s two man-made bat boxes that had once been home for almost 1,000 bats. At last count, the population has decreased to less than 150 bats.
Zitzelberger refurbished the two large bat boxes located on the gate tower near the lake and built three additional roosting habitats, which will be placed throughout the park. Providing new summer homes for the little brown bats, the most common species in the park, will support the current bat population, allowing the baby bats or pups to grow and thrive before returning to the same caves where the fungus continues to grow.
First documented in New York in the winter of 2006-07, this mysterious fungus, originating from Europe, is believed to have surfaced in Pennsylvania in 2008 and began killing cave bats in 2009. WNS refers to a white fungus, which starts to collect around the bat’s nose.
WNS affects their skin, which wakes the bats out of hibernation. The bats start searching for food during the time when there isn’t any.
Why should we care about whether these bats survive? Bats are seriously misunderstood. It is an impressive species making up one-fifth of the mammal population in the entire world. Although a common fear, humans have a greater chance of contracting rabies from cats and dogs than from bats.
Another misconception is that a bat will fly into your hair. Bat use echolocation, which allows them to catch a tiny insect out of the air at the same time avoiding a human head of hair.
These furry flying creatures are the only night time insect eaters, eating roughly 1,000 mosquitos per hour during an evening flight. The U.S. Geological Society reports that bats provide an invaluable service by providing free pest control. It’s estimated that 1 million bats in one year can eat 700 million tons of insects saving farmers approximately $300 million dollars in pesticides, nationally.
Pennsylvania residents are encouraged to support this effort by building their own bat box and hanging it in an appropriate location. Approved bat box plans and location specifications can be found on the state Game Commission Web site.
Outdoor explorers are discouraged from entering caves during the winter. It is illegal to kill a bat in Pennsylvania; therefore, residents need to contact experts to safety remove bats from homes or other buildings.
Next time you’re outside swatting mosquitos, think of the plight of the Pennsylvania cave bats and support the bat population in your neighborhood.
In addition to supporting the bat residents at Parker Dam State Park, Zitzelberger planted several maples trees in the grove and along the driveway to the Park’s Sugar Shack as part of his eagle scout project.
For more information about the park’s maple sugaring programs, contact the Parker Dam State Park office at 814-765-0630.
Only 4 percent of boys who start scouting complete the rank of Eagle Scout in the United States. Scouting encourages boys to develop character and values that they will use for a lifetime. Anyone interested in scouting can contact the local scout troops or the Bucktail Council in Dubois at 814-371-5650.
Several community organizations and private individuals donated supplies and materials for the Eagle Scout project, including Parker Dam State Park, Lowe’s, Lezzer Lumber Company, Vegetation Managers, Kim & Kerry Wood, Evelyn Zitzelberger, the Darr and Zitzelberger families.