In an experiment aimed at investigating alternative strategies to save Vermont’s bats, biologists collected 30 hibernating little brown bats from caves in Vermont and New York and transported them to a former military bunker on Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in Maine.
The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department hopes the so-called Noah’s Ark strategy might serve as a last resort to save some bat species from local extinction. Bats have been struggling for the past five years with white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease responsible for catastrophic declines of northeastern bats. Department officials believe that all little brown bats remaining in the wild in Vermont are already infected.
Of the thirty little brown bats used in the experiment, nine survived and were transported back to Vermont and New York and then released in the wild last week.
“We learned a lot from this experiment,” said Vermont Fish & Wildlife bat project leader Scott Darling. “These bats were visibly infected before being placed in the bunker, so we wouldn’t have expected many of them to survive in their natural cave environment.”
In the early years of the disease, wildlife officials reported survival rates as low as 10 percent among infected bats hibernating in the wild, so the experiment marked an improvement from that figure. “We’re looking at ways to increase survival of future groups so we’ll be even better prepared if this strategy becomes necessary,” added Darling.
Bats generate an estimated $3.7 billion a year in benefits to North American agriculture through insect pest control and crop pollination, according to the journal Science. In Vermont, they are the principle predator of flying insects that damage crops and torment livestock and people.
The bunker had been prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide the proper climate and roosting materials to replicate cave conditions. Bats were monitored via video camera by refuge personnel.
Wildlife officials from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Bucknell University, and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Game also participated in the study.