A man standing in the door of a red barn

For this Missouri bat ambassador, conservation begins at home

Georgia Parham | April 9, 2018

Athens, Missouri

Dave Murphy doesn’t remember the first time he seriously thought about bats.

Maybe it was the memories of 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.”

Perhaps it was knowing they were catching insects after nightfall.

Whatever it was, those experiences turned Murphy into a bat ambassador. Murphy, the commissioner of the Missouri Department of Conservation, has kept the family farm. He’s kept it bat-friendly, too.

Murphy’s willingness to preserve bat habitat while holding on to the farm is proof that conservation and business can co-exist. He has worked to make his forests healthier, removing invasive trees and encouraging native plants to grow, all the while making sure the land sustains itself.

A man crouching next to a newly planted tree
Dave Murphy planting a native tree on his farm. Photo by Kelly O'Mara, Ozark Regional Land Trust.

That’s good news for Myotis sodalis, the Indiana bat. The tiny flier, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, lives on the Murphy farm. The 382-acre farm, passed from his grandfather to his father, and now in Murphy’s capable hands, includes 240 acres of forested land in northeastern Missouri’s Clark County.

A small brown bat attached to the side of a tree trunk
Indiana bat on a tree. Photo by Adam Mann.

Landowners like Murphy and his wife, Gunilla, offer hope to species struggling to hang on, said Shauna Marquardt, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 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, she said.

“Dave and Gunilla Murphy have a long legacy of responsible and innovative land stewardship,” Marquardt said. “They are committed to maintaining a working farm that also provides wildlife benefits which, I’m thrilled to say, includes bats.”

For Murphy, bat conservation was just about inevitable.

A conservation ethic rooted in the land

When he was a preteen, Murphy shot a barn swallow with his new BB gun. What followed made him a conservationist for life. “Dad stood over me as I plucked it, cooked it and ate it, Murphy said “Never again!”

That lesson, and others, shaped the youngster.

“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, Murphy’s father and grandfather considered themselves very well connected to the land, for livelihood as well as for recreation.

The boy felt that connection, too. Before he was 7, the child was accompanying the men on night-time raccoon hunts and early-morning forays for squirrel.

“For me, the solace of the forest has always held magical, irresistible attraction. Dad and granddad were devoted quail and raccoon hunters,” Murphy said. “Their ethics and notions about quail and raccoon hunting were top-shelf and endeared them to local conservation agents as friends and allies.”

Murphy directed his academic attention to wildlife at the University of Missouri, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forest and wildlife management. One of his professors was Bill Elder, professor of zoology and a former student of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold. His professor, Murphy said, was “a real bat nut.” He recalled his mentor driving a car whose license plate read “M sodalis” — the Indiana bat’s abbreviated scientific name.

Murphy spent summer 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 endangered species. Murphy 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 the 1978 discovery was the first time they had been documented in the northern part of the state.

His love of forest and wildlife led Murphy to a career with the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Conservation Federation of Missouri. In those positions, he had countless opportunities to learn more and contribute helping wildlife. The efforts ranged from fund-raising to habitat restoration.

“Timber stand improvement projects, glade restoration projects, prairie restoration projects – they all impacted thousands of acres each year,” he said. Open canopies to enhance fruit and acorn production in the forest and prescribed fire and other practices to establish and manage high-quality native grasslands also were of great benefit to bats.

Murphy’s broad awareness and interest in forest wildlife really became personal in the early 2000s, when a U.S. Forest Service crew surveying bats in northern Missouri focused its operations on public lands in Lewis and Clark counties. The crew used Murphy’s farm as a base of operations. That’s when he and his family learned what a rich, diverse and abundant array of bat species their property supported.

Surveys have revealed at the very least dozens of endangered Indiana bats on the Murphy farm.

“This has become an element of great pride for our family,” Murphy said. “It is a daily delight to watch them foraging overhead at twilight.”

Murphy’s philosophy for managing his farm is based on two overriding beliefs: Every action must improve the forest’s health, productivity and sustainability. And it must enhance soil health and minimize water waste and erosion.

“Healthy lands and readily available permanent water enhance wildlife carrying capacity in many ways — producing more benefits without drawing on the steadily improving capital,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s family put his beliefs into practice through timber stand improvement on his woodland. Reducing undesirable trees like invasive species or diseased trees opens the canopy and results in better acorn production, more desirable trees and generation of new seedlings.

Murphy moves mulch into a wheelbarrow with a pitchfork.
Dave Murphy working his land. Photo by Kelly O'Mara, Ozark Regional Land Trust.

On croplands and grasslands, Murphy practices no-till farming and plants cover crops. He has restored several ponds previously damaged by cattle, and uses the sediment on exposed clay hilltops. The ponds’ restored banks minimize evaporation of stored water.

To forest landowners, Murphy 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.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature's Good Neighbor through our Missouri Ecological Services Field Office and Endangered Species Program, which partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Find a Service field station near you.

Georgia Parham is a public affairs specialist for the Midwest Regional Office in Bloomington, MN.