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A small, brown, furry bat in a gloved hand.
Information icon Northern long-eared bat caught at Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by USFWS.

Programming conservation

Gary Jordan is really looking forward to tonight. His gear is ready. The headlamp has fresh batteries, his gloves are packed, and the new net is loaded in the back of his truck. Gary is a biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he will be looking for bats. He’ll drive a little more than two hours from Raleigh to the Coastal Plain. Once there, he’ll meet up with private consultants working as contractors. They’ll set up nets near swamps after they thoroughly think through the best location. They’ll try to outsmart the bats by predicting which direction they might fly. They’ll need to work quickly to be ready before the sun goes down. That’s when the bats start coming out. There is no way to predict which kinds of bats they’ll get or how many. But they are looking for one in particular: the northern long-eared bat (NLEB). Gary and his friends will have fun tonight regardless of what happens, because for them, the thrill is in the chase.

The team’s target, the northern long-eared bat, is one of the species of bats most impacted by the disease white-nose syndrome (WNS). Infected bats present white powdery muzzles, wings, and ears, an appearance that lead to the description of the accompanying disease as WNS. The illness spreads quickly among bats hibernating in caves and mines from the northeastern to the central United States. So why would Gary and his friends be looking for the northern long-eared bat near the coast, where the closest mine or cave must be at least 150 miles away, within the Blue Ridge Mountain Range, across state lines in Virginia? The species is a short-distant migrant, so the chances of it migrating to the Carolina coast and then returning up north or west to hibernate in caves and mines is minuscule (We’ll get back to this later).

A biologist in a USFWS polo shirt and head lamp holds a tiny bat in a gloved hand.
Gary Jordan with eastern red bat caught at Chowan Swamp Game Land in Hertford County, NC. Photo by USFWS.

Running its course, WNS decimates bat populations across North America with mortality rates reaching up to 100 percent at many sites. Prompted by the bat decline, the Service proposed federal protection for the NLEB in 2014. The agency listed the NLEB as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on April 2, 2015. One of the ESA provisions requires federal agencies to consult with the Service to ensure that actions they fund, authorize, permit, or otherwise carry out will not jeopardize the continued existence of any listed species or adversely modify designated critical habitats. This brings us back to Gary and the crew searching for bats.

You see, Gary specializes in transportation projects. He reviews designs for new roads, highway expansions, and improvements and along with other biologists at the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the Federal Highway Administration, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) and the US Army Corps of Engineers. Together, they look for ways to ensure their projects don’t wipe out a sensitive species or push it to the brink of extinction. So when the Service proposed listing the NLEB, Gary and his colleagues realized that if the listing went through, they would be looking at about 1,500 additional projects that may need to be reviewed within the next five years.

A small furry brown bat with long curved ears.
Rafinesque’s big-eared bat caught at Howell Woods in Johnston County, NC. Photo by USFWS.

But how would they accommodate the additional workload? More importantly, how exactly would they go about protecting the species if they know little about it? Before working for the Service, Gary had worked with Indiana bats in the state of Indiana. He knew that a standard recommendation for the Indiana Bat is to avoid tree clearing during summer months. Doing so prevents harming or harassing maternity roosting sites, where young bats are incapable of fending for themselves if the mother bat is scared away from the roost or killed. In eastern North Carolina, this recommendation could potentially do more harm than good. Furthermore, in eastern NC, the NLEB wasn’t even known to be part of the landscape until 2009, when Professor Matina Kalcounis-Rueppell put the species on the map. The UNC-Greensboro professor, along with other scientists, suggested the presence of NLEB active during winter months and not hibernating. The report was later supported by additional reports by researcher, Jack Grider. The scientific community was baffled with more questions than answers: How is the NLEB meeting its biological needs? What does it feed on during winter months? Where does it roost and shelter? Could there be a local, permanent non-hibernating population in eastern NC? If so, female bats must be setting up maternity roosting sites in trees. But which trees?

This is where Gary and his bat-loving comrades enter the picture. The North Carolina Department of Transportation has set aside $4 million earmarked for NLEB surveys during summer and winter months to try to better understand the species requirements. In exchange, the Service gave NCDOT an incidental take permit, which will allow them to continue working on their projects for five years while the team develops comprehensive guidelines that will shape consultation recommendations starting in 2020. So far, the team has successfully confirmed the NLEB during winter months in unexpected counties, like Currituck and Gates. Through the use of radio transmitters, they have confirmed those bats to be active throughout the winter. Range and distribution within the state are also unknown and one of the next parameters to explore. So far, they have detected a single bat as far south as Bladen Lakes State Forest, near South Carolina. The team also plans to do several more surveys during the 2016-2017winter seasons. Eventually, during the later part of study, the goal is to track the roost sites to understand their maternity behavior.

As you can see, Gary will have plenty of nights in the woods. He will spend countless hours thinking like a bat, checking nets every 10 minutes, walking, recording data, taking pictures of each bat and maybe even debating over the identity of some odd bat that doesn’t display the typical signs of a particular species.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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