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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Biologists go to bat for mysterious helpers

Bats are out of sight and out of mind for the winter.

Hoary bats have made their break to winter in Mexico or thereabouts.

Big and little browns and other varieties have left attics and other roosting sites to snuggle into caves, mines, private spaces in occupied buildings and other places that afford them safe hibernation in temperatures that don’t dip below 35 degrees.

“Some think bats are creepy little rodent-like mammals, but they’re quite closely related to humans,” said Pat Ormsbee, U.S. Forest Service bat specialist in Oregon. “They’re like miniature quasi primates with wings.”

We’ve learned a few things about bats in the Inland Northwest from research the Forest Service and the University of Idaho have been working on since 1987.

Researchers made the case for protecting caves and abandoned mines for the benefit of bats, which play significant ecological roles as pollinators, tree seed dispersers and insect predators.

Most North American bats consume large volumes of crop pests and help maintain the health of forests and agricultural crops.

But bat numbers are dropping around much of the world, partly because of habitat destruction. A baffling fungus infection called white-nose is killing bats by the millions elsewhere, although it has not hit this region, yet.

Research just published last month indicates that wind turbines are more lethal to bats when the blades turn at slow speeds.

“It might be that when bats echo-locate the blade isn’t there but as the bat flies forward it’s struck by the blade,” Ormsbee said. “If wind companies allow the blades to turn only at higher speeds, bat strikes might be reduced significantly.”

The bat surveys that started in the Idaho Panhandle and then spread into Montana and the Dakotas documented 15 species, three of which are migratory.

Along with Bat Conservation International, the Forest Service in this region began protecting “batitat” by installing bat gates on more than 100 caves and mine shafts in Idaho and Montana.

The gates deter people from entering dangerous mines while allowing bats to come and go.

Migratory hoary bats have been found to be the most widespread of all of the bats found in the United States. They mate in the fall and like most bats do not become pregnant until early spring.

Mother bats give birth from May to July to an average of two pups.

But brown bats and other species found in this region can be quite obvious as they roost in maternal colonies of 20 to 300.

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