Despite advances in GPS monitoring and technology, Washington researchers still have a world of information to discover about bats, including where they go during winter.
“It’s amazing how much about bats is still a mystery to us,” said Ella Rowan, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Spokane.
Of the 15 bat species known to inhabit Washington, 13 occur in Spokane County, she said.
“Some are very specific about the habitat they like, whether it’s the shrub-steppe or the forests,” she said. Funding has rarely been available for bat research, although state and federal agencies have picked up the level a bit in the last two years as Eastern bats were dying from white-nose syndrome.
The fungus that causes the whiteness on the nose and ultimately the death of the bat is in most Eastern states but has not been found west of the Mississippi. “At least not yet,” Rowan said.
People who explore caves may be a threat to spreading the bat-killing fungus if they go to the East and then bring the problem back in their gear to western caves, she said.
“We’re just starting to get basic information on bats in Washington,” she said. “We’re trying to find out where they exist, what habitat is important and what times they’re in it.
“Amazing as it sounds, we don’t know where our species hibernate in winter, including the Townsend’s big-eared bat, which is a candidate for state protective listing. They fly at night and they’re hard to study.
“We suspect a lot of them go into the Columbia Basin and hibernate deep in the rock crevasses where people can’t see them, but we don’t know for sure.”
While technology has created tiny devices that can track bird migrations, GPS units that have to be the size of a pencil eraser don’t have the battery life to stay with a bat more than two-three weeks.
“Battery life severely restricts the data we can get on bats,” Rowan said, noting that the bats may fly 100 miles to their hibernacula.”
But one thing scientists know for sure is that bats are important cogs in a healthy ecosystem. “The Forest Service, BLM and other agencies all are putting more resources into understanding bats,” Rowan said.
“Getting the public to know how important they are is part of our work.”