Newsroom Midwest Region

For this Missouri bat ambassador, conservation begins at home

October 24, 2017

Bat ambassadors Dave and Gunilla Murphy. Photos courtesy of Dave Murphy.
Bat ambassadors Dave and Gunilla Murphy. Photos courtesy of Dave Murphy.

Dave Murphy doesn’t remember the first time he seriously thought about bats. As a kid growing up on a farm in northeastern Missouri, he recalls bats occasionally entering the old farmhouse and flying around inside. “I don’t remember us ever killing one, just catching it and putting it outside.” Dave’s reluctance to give in to what he calls his “natural bloodthirstiness” was based on an incident as a preteen when he shot a barn swallow with his new BB gun. “Dad stood over me as I plucked it, cooked it and ate it. Never again!”

Lessons learned as a kid, coupled with his connection to the land and his passion for wildlife, shaped Dave Murphy into the kind of a guy for whom environment and natural resources became the basis for his life’s work. And from his student days in the 1970s to his current post as a Missouri Department of Conservation Commissioner, Dave has spent his career doing his best for the things he cares about.

“From early on, I have always associated the presence of bats with a healthy environment,” Dave said. “Their dependence on abundant flying insects, varied landscapes and reliable refugia meshes perfectly with my view of an ideal for our environment.”

Dave points to his family and farm as root of his passion and dedication to the natural world. “They say it takes a hunter to make a hunter, and members of my family have always been hunters,” he said. As hard working, small-scale, diversified farmers, Dave’s father and grandfather considered themselves very well connected to the land, for livelihood as well as for recreation. The 382-acre farm, passed from his grandfather to his father, and now in Dave’s capable hands, includes 240 acres of forested land in northeastern Missouri’s Clark County.

“For me, the solace of the forest has always held magical, irresistible attraction. Dad and Grandad were devoted quail and raccoon hunters. Their ethics and notions about quail and raccoon hunting were top shelf and endeared them to local conservation agents as friends and allies.” His personal experiences began with night time raccoon hunts and early morning squirrel hunts, both before the age of 7.

“My personal growth in conservation ethics and natural resource passion was kindled by countless trips afield with Dad and Grandad,” Dave said, “and their great abilities as story tellers, always about hunting experiences. From boyhood, I imagined a future as a professional in the field of wildlife conservation, especially forest wildlife. I was the first member of my family to enjoy the privileges of college education.”

Dave first directed his academic attention to bats in mammalogy class at the University of Missouri, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. One of his professors was Dr. Bill Elder, professor of zoology, a former student of Aldo Leopold, and “a real bat nut,” according to Dave. He recalls his mentor driving about in a car whose license plate read M sodalis, the scientific name of the Indiana bat.

Dave spent the summer of 1978 as an hourly employee of the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Someone learned I grew up on and knew the rivers of northeast Missouri firsthand,” he says. His expertise landed him in the field with renowned Indiana bat researchers Richard and Margaret Lavall as they searched for the rare species. Dave helped set bat boxes and mist nets, hoping to find breeding Indiana bats. They did! While Indiana bats were known from areas in southern Missouri, like Pilot Knob in Iron County, this was the first time they had been documented in the northern part of the state.

His love of forest and wildlife led Dave to a career with the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Conservation Federation of Missouri, where he was afforded countless opportunities to learn more and contribute to efforts that directly and indirectly benefited bats, from fund raising to habitat restoration. “Timber stand improvement projects, glade restoration projects, prairie restoration projects – they all impacted thousands of acres each year,” Dave said.

An opportunity to expand the scope of his impact on forest wildlife conservation to a higher level came when the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives asked Dave for help when they were faced with a stiff penalty for mitigation to bat habitat lost for a right-of-way that cut through a Missouri forest. First a meeting of Association and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leadership was put together for both sides to listen to the other. “We suggested that maybe managing the entire forest for the benefit of bats - and enhanced forest health and productivity - could better mitigate the building of the powerline than the dollars,” Dave said. “A better mitigation at less cost!”

Dave’s broad awareness and interest in bats really became personal in the early 2000s, when a U.S. Forest Service crew surveying bats in northern Missouri focused their operations on a variety of public lands in Lewis and Clark counties, and used Dave’s farm as their base of operations. That’s when he and his family learned what a rich, diverse and abundant array of bat species their lands supported. Technological tools employed by bat professionals revealed auditory evidence of good numbers of several species. Mist net captures and radio tagging of lactating female Indiana bats has revealed at the very least dozens of these endangered residents on the Murphy farm. “Relatively common bats and even very rare species make their homes on our farm,” Dave said. “This has become an element of great pride for our family. It is a daily delight to watch them foraging overhead at twilight.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Shauna Marquardt said partnerships with landowners are essential to the success of conservation efforts in Missouri because so many of the state’s imperiled fish and wildlife resources depend on privately owned land. “Dave and Gunilla Murphy have a long legacy of responsible and innovative land stewardship,” Shauna said. “They are committed to maintaining a working farm that also provides wildlife benefits which, I’m thrilled to say, includes bats.”

Asked about the conservation value of bats, and the future of bat populations, Dave pointed to the effort to conserve the monarch butterfly. “Think of all the attention we now heap upon monarchs, pollinators of just a few species. In my opinion it is entirely justified, a long overdue deference to an iconic component of a healthy, natural environment. Bats are at best relatively poorly known and understood. At worst, they are often feared as vampires or vectors of rabies.”

Dave sees bats, the only true flying mammals, as marvels. “The sophistication of their vocal and auditory senses is amazing. Imagine what it takes to intercept a mosquito in stygian darkness, on the fly…not just once, but thousands of times!”

Insect-eating bats consume vast quantities of insects, many of them detrimental to crops and forests, saving billions of dollars a year.

To forest landowners, Dave offered this perspective: “Managing forests according to a stewardship plan that ensures forest health and productivity is perfect for bats and greatly enhances the economic value of that forest at the same time. In fact, I believe careful management of native grasslands and permanent water sources to also be both the right and responsible thing to do, and of benefit to bats.”