UK researchers helping bats in Eastern Kentucky

CLAYHOLE, Ky. (WTVQ/UK Public Relations) – In the University of Kentucky’s Robinson Forest, there are small, harvested openings scattered across the landscape. The openings are part of a College of Agriculture, Food and Environment study designed to create improved bat habitat.

With the support of The Forestland Group, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kentucky Division of Forestry, the project is investigating three forest management alternatives to determine which, if any, will provide the optimum environment for several imperiled bat species that live in forests during the summer, raising their young.

Researchers are collecting data on the effectiveness of flyways and small openings for the bats. Flyways are paths in which the bats traverse the woods allowing them to easily fly through the small openings where they can easily forage for insects each night. Providing these flyways and openings in the hillsides allows the bats to fly more freely and feed more effectively. Scattered openings allow more sunlight to reach tree trunks, warming the young nestled in cavities or beneath the bark. The methods should also produce greater insect diversity, which is beneficial to both the bats and the landscape. Protecting the food helps protect the bat.

The study involves three areas in Eastern Kentucky: UK’s Robinson Forest, Kentucky Ridge State Forest in Bell County and The Forestland Group’s land in Breathitt County. The multiple sites will help researchers draw conclusions at the end of the project that could be applied to a wider geographic region.

“Bats are critical, but unfortunately, we’ve got two species of bats here in Eastern Kentucky which are in trouble. Those are the northern long-eared bat and the Indiana bat,” said Jeff Stringer, chair of the UK Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and a co-principal investigator of the study. “Besides the natural repercussions this has on the environment with a decline in both species, it can also have a negative impact on forest operations such as timber harvesting.”

Stringer said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to make sure the habitats are preserved and to minimize potential harm to a threatened species.

“I believe that we can both use the forests for all the benefits they provide us and improve habitat for bats at the same time,” he said.

Stringer said one of the most interesting things he’s learned from the project since its inception is that they can conduct timber harvesting while protecting forest-dwelling bats and that, if properly designed, a timber harvest can improve the habitat for a wide range of bat species.

The long-eared and Indiana bats are survivors of white nose syndrome, a disease that is devastating bat populations around the nation. Since first evidence of the disease first showed up in North America in 2006, millions of bats have died when the cold-adapted, white fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, infected the skin of their muzzles, ears and wings during the critical hibernation period. According to the U.S. Forest Service, at least 5.5 million bats have died from white nose syndrome in the U.S. Several species are federally listed as threatened and endangered, and a number of other forest dwelling bats are headed in the same direction. Many spend their summers in Kentucky’s forests.

Bats benefit the ecosystem by their ability to consume large amounts of insects. A single little brown bat may eat 600 mosquitoes in an hour using its tail and wing membranes. They are also the only major predator of night-flying insects.

Bats are globally important, controlling spread of insect-borne diseases and pollinating and dispersing seed. They are also used by medical researchers to help develop vaccines and drugs, navigation aids for the blind and low-temperature surgical techniques.

Though many bat species spend colder months in caves, some species, such as the northern long-eared and Indiana bats, actually use forests for summer roosting and rearing young. Both of these native Kentucky species have been severely impacted by the disease. In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern long-eared bat as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act

“From a forest management perspective, the fact that these bats are threatened means that we’ll have to stop doing a lot of the timber work we are doing,” said Alex Finkral, chief forester of The Forestland Group, one of the largest owners of private forest land in the United States. “This got us to thinking that we don’t actually know a lot about what bats are doing and what kinds of structural attributes and forests they need or like.”

Finkral said that previous mentalities were that bats were best left alone, and that keeping their habitat as-is was the best thing to do for the threatened species. It turns out that these understandings may be an oversimplification of a complex issue.

“The assumption that not altering their habitat struck us a little funny,” Finkral said. “Most wildlife species have evolved and adapted to tens of thousands of years of natural disturbances, such as fire and windstorms here in Kentucky. So, what would happen if we tried controlling the growth and structure of the forest in ways that would actually help the bats? We learn more to make the best decisions for the bats.”

Researchers will use the results to develop treatments using variable retention harvest methods. There is an intact “non-harvested” control site at each location. The other two treatments will retain the large trees that bats prefer for roosting and raising young, either selectively harvesting trees in a uniform pattern throughout the landscape or focusing harvests to create small openings in the forest canopy. Researchers hope these treatments will improve bat habitat and help bat populations of the two species in Eastern Kentucky forests.

“This is an important issue,” Stringer said. “We want to do the right thing. We want to do what is best for endangered species. We have an obligation to the environmental resources in addition to what is best for the farming and forest industries here in Kentucky. I think this research will be able to help both now and in the long run, and I am looking forward to the future of this project.”

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