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The Count in the Bat Cave


"These aren’t normal people," is the first thing that pops into my mind when I engage in a conversation with Craig Stihler, biologist with the West Virginia DNR’s Wildlife Heritage program.     January and February are big months for Craig, his staff, and various volunteers.   They spend the winter crawling through damp, dark caverns to count bats.    Yes, I did say "count bats."   It’s not normal, but certainly critical work.

"These caves we survey every other winter," explains Stihler. "So the caves we’re doing now were surveyed in January-February 2006.  We’re trying to keep track of bat population numbers."

Most important to this work is the numbers of bats listed as endangered.   The Virginia Big Eared bat and the Indiana bat are on the list.  The count is critical to determine if bat numbers are increasing or dwindling.  West Virginia boasts one of the strongest populations of the two rare species.

Counting Bats

Stihler is the envy of his counterparts in other states, since

"What we’re seeing is as we protect these caves, numbers are increasing," Stihler says.  "We’ve done six Indiana bat caves and in every case numbers are up from our last survey."

This year’s surveys are concentrating on caves on the western slopes of the West Virginia mountains.    This year’s count is conducted in Randolph, Pocahontas, Greenbrier, and Monroe Counties.   The eastern panhandle counties were surveyed a year ago and will be explored next year.    The eastern caves tend to hold more of the Virginia Big Eared bats, which also showed significantly better numbers during last years count. 

Stihler explains however, there are some caves in West Virginia that are extremely important to their work since they harbor both of the endangered species.

"They both like caves that are quite cold, colder than a lot of our other bats," said Stihler. "Hellhole Cave in Germany Valley has the largest concentration of Virginia Big Ears anywhere in the world and it has the largest concentration of Indiana bats in this region.   It’s a very important cave."

Protecting the cave means keeping people out during the critical months of hibernation.   DNR workers weld steel grids across the entrance to the caves during the hibernation periods.   The grids allow the bats to pass freely, but keep curious humans out.   During their hibernation, bats are conserving energy and disturbing them into flight could lead to their demise.  

"We have caves that are just hibernating colonies, but we open them in the summer for people to enjoy the cave." Stihler said.

Gates are installed to protect hibernating bats during the winter months

Summertime exploration for cavers and spelunkers may be threatened this year.   An outbreak of a new white nose syndrome has been found in the caves of upstate New York and Vermont.   Stihler says they could decide to keep the West Virginia caves closed year-round until they can learn more about the fungus.   New York biologists report entire bat colonies dying out once the fungus takes a foothold.

"We’ve been checking all of our bats pretty closely, making sure we don’t’ have it here," said Stihler.  

Counting the bats is a bit of a scientific exercise.   In some cases, counters simply use a "hand clicker" to count noses.    Three counters will count a cluster, compare their results, and if different an average number from those three will serve as the official count.   Some of the clusters become so dense, such an exercise is impossible and the science has to take over.

"Our endangered bats tend to form really dense clusters, 300 to 500 per square foot," said Stihler.  "We’ll actually take photos of clusters with a ruler next to them, and then use the picture to count the bats per square foot and calculate the number from the size of the cluster."

The trick is getting all of the data rapidly, without causing any more disturbance than is necessary.    The counts are not confined to the endangered bats every species is counted and documented.    The information creates a data base to reference in future years if another species begins to fall into decline.  Stihler says their research allows them to have track records to plot the decline. 


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