With bats dying, MN could help research

Benjamin Farniok

A state effort to prevent Minnesota’s bats from going extinct could receive extra support from lawmakers this session, which in turn could boost the work of University of Minnesota researchers.
 
The school researchers are hoping to study bats’ habitats. And if state officials approve a proposal this legislative session, state funding would cover most of their research’s cost.
 
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the Northern Long-Eared Bat a threatened species last month following a drop in its population by nearly 7 million. No infected bats in Minnesota have been reported.
 
While the disease is putting the bats’ health at risk, University researchers are hoping to better protect their habitats by tracking populations and closely documenting their habitats.
 
Richard Baker, Minnesota endangered species coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the research — which is set to conclude in June 2018 — would cost $1.5 million in total. 
 
If state lawmakers approve a proposal in the Senate before the session ends this month, $1.25 million of the research’s cost would be funded by the state. The remaining cost would be covered by the University, DNR and U.S. Forest Service.
 
White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease, has killed more than 90 percent of bats in some affected caves in the eastern U.S., Baker said.
 
Ron Moen, associate biology professor at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, will head the habitat-based research efforts. He said the disease spreads in caves, where the bats hibernate during the winter.
 
Moen estimated that there are about 10,000 Long-Eared Bats in Minnesota, though there are no definite counts of the number of the species.
 
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was found in two Minnesotan bat caves in August 2013. That year, funding was given to the University to investigate microbes in the Soudan Iron Mine in northern Minnesota. Microbes could yield a way to control the disease. 
 
“If white-nose syndrome were to drive the species down to very low numbers, it could have impacts on reproduction that drive them to extinction,” Baker 
said.
 
To further ensure the bats don’t go extinct, the new research aims to protect the trees they live in.
 
The research project will consist of trapping bats, attaching radio transponders to the females and then tracking them to where they roost in trees or raise their young, during warmer months.
 
Once the roost trees are found, Moen said researchers will study their surrounding areas to learn more about where bats decide to roost. By documenting the patterns, researchers could provide evidence for foresters to consider as they chop down trees, Moen said. They could better avoid areas bats frequent.
 
Baker said the method could prevent young bats from being killed when trees are cleared for forest care or to build roads.
 
Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said the bats play a critical role in the state’s economy.
 
The value to agriculture for Minnesota bats has been estimated at $1.4 billion, according to the Minnesota DNR.
 
“A single bat eats 1,000 insects per hour, and so the state’s half a million bats provide millions of dollars in pest control every year,” Dziedzic said.
 
The Senate’s version of the proposal passed through a committee on Tuesday. State officials have until May 18 to finalize the proposals.