By Darren Lum
Paul Heaven, lead biologist on the 2018 Bats at Risk Assessment Report, hopes the public will do their part to help bats survive this winter.
With the support of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Heaven spent two years working on the report for the Haliburton Highlands Land Trust, learning about the eight bat species in Haliburton County, establishing a baseline of information and how people can help bats, especially given threats such as white-nose syndrome, a disease that disrupts bat life cycles.
“White-nose syndrome is one thing, but we really sort of highlighted the fact that we as landowners can be doing things as well, taking some of the other pressures off. There’s not much we can do for white-nose in Haliburton. We certainly can take some of the other pressures off,” he said.
These include protecting habitats such as wetlands and places bats use to hibernate such as derelict buildings and caves, and maintaining old growth features in the woods where they roost. The report lists natural roost sites as woodpecker holds, rot holes, cracks, splits and loose bark.
Eight bat species were discovered living in the Highlands, four of them listed as endangered.
Other ways to help bats is to leave them alone, particularly during this time of year when they hibernate.
“When they’re in their hibernation site any disturbance to those is really, really detrimental. Plus, the other [thing] is you’re bringing in the risk of infecting those hibernation sites,” Heaven said.
He warns people not to disturb bats in caves to ensure their winter survival.
Approaching a bat or entering a hibernation site can have dire consequences. “The worst thing that can happen to that hibernation site is you’ve introduced the white-nose syndrome and then you’ve brought that into the hibernation site and it would wipe out that entire population. That could be coming in on your boot or something else if you been walking in another cave somewhere,” he said.
The bat expends a lot of energy when it is brought out of torpor (the state a bat is in while hibernating). Without a food source during the winter, it cannot replace what it has lost. Heaven said a large cave could house thousands of bats, which can include more than one species.
As far as finding a bat in a building, if there isn’t any likelihood of human contact, the recommendation is to leave them alone.
“In many cases, there is no reason to evict bats from the building if there is little chance of human contact. Small bat colonies (i.e. night roosts or small maternity colonies) can usually be left alone with minimal management of the bat guano, as an excellent alternative. In these instances sweeping up or containing the guano, or a well-placed potted plant to catch the guano below the site, will easily address these concerns,” the report states.
The report also said if a landowner wants to exclude bats from a building that, under the Endangered Species Act 2007, “endangered and threatened species cannot be harassed, captured or killed unless property owners enter into an agreement with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.”
Timing is an important consideration in “effectively and humanely” excluding a bat from a residence.
The Land Trust report provided four periods of time related to the bat’s activities, including the “overwintering” from December until the end of March.
It recommends it’s “a good time to seal entrances completely IF you are sure that all bats have left to hibernate elsewhere and no bats remain. Taking action to evict or exclude any remaining bats during winter months would likely result in their death as they are highly vulnerable to the cold.”
Attacks by bats are rare. The threat of rabies is low relative to other species in Ontario.
In 2016, there were 29 rabid bats reported. One was in Haliburton County. Comparatively, there were 171 rabid raccoons, 84 rabid skunks and one rabid fox in southwestern Ontario, as reported by the MNRF.
The report also includes information on how to properly have a bat removed.
Like any animal, bats are an integral component to the ecosystem, their consumption of nighttime insects is prolific, numbering in the thousands each evening. They help to control pests to prevent damage to forests and agriculture and reduce the use of pesticides.
Heaven is aware people have been seeing more bats in the area recently. Without a study, it’s difficult to know about the veracity of such claims. He hopes a follow-up report will be possible if funding could be made available. He said he sees the possibility of healthier bat populations, despite white-nose syndrome, because of the general scientific understanding of viruses.
“With all viruses they slowly start off really, really nasty and then if they kill their host, they’re not going to do well,” he said. “The first wave is always terrible and then they start to peter out a little bit and back off so they do well. The virus has to do well or it’s not going to sustain itself.”
Until there is another report, the public is integral to assisting the bats of the area with the best possibilities to thrive.
Read the report at www.haliburtonlandtrust.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Best-Management-Practices-for-Bats-January-2018.pdf