A well known abandoned mine was gated this week to protect a critical hibernation zone for bats that are facing extreme challenges as a group of species.
The Queen Victoria Mine above Beasley is a popular roosting spot in the summer and in winter, the largest most diverse hibernaculum in the province, says bat biologist Cori Lausen, of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada.
“There are thousands of abandoned mines in the area but none have nearly the diversity,” she says, explaining the cave-like nature of the mine makes it more attractive to bats.
Lausen has been researching Queen Victoria Mine area and its inhabitants. She explains when humans enter a roost such as this mine, they may unknowingly track in spores of the deadly White Nose Syndrome fungus that kills bats while they hibernate.
Discovered in 2006, the fungus has yet to be found in BC, but it’s quickly spreading across North America with virtually no bats left in some areas of the Eastern North America — up to a 90 per cent death rate with more than 6 million bat deaths.
“Every year we find out something new,” Lausen says. “It’s a race against the clock. We’re going to have so few bats after White Nose hits.”
“We stand to lose the most,” she says. “We don’t know how it’s going to impact the west, but the predictions are dire.”
Of the 16 species of bats found in BC, seven have been found roosting at the mine. During summer, they pop in and out as they feed using the cavern a rendezvous point, old drilling holes in the mine being particularly attractive to some.
Three species have been found overwintering: the Silver-Haired Bat, Californian Myotis and Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat. While in hibernation, bats are much more sensitive. They don’t feed in the winter so have to keep their body temperature and breathing rates very low to conserve fat stores. Noise, light and physical disturbances cause bats to use up these fat stores and can force them out of hibernation.
It’s this ability to regulate their body temperature to save energy that fascinates the biologist who has been hooked on bats since 1993 when studying at the University of Calgary.
“They do that to save energy otherwise they’d have to eat all day,” she says. “Flight is expensive.”
Today, Lausen sits as the Canadian on a panel of eight who is designing a bat-monitoring program for all of North America. She teaches courses on acoustical identification and when she has time, is collaborating with Dave Nagorsen on an updated version of the Bats of Western Canada.
Of special interest are the Silver-Haired Bats which biologists thought migrated. In fact, the Queen Victoria Mine houses them in the winter. They spend about 10 days to two weeks at rest inside and then come out and roost beneath the bark of surrounding trees for about the same amount of time. Then, they repeat the cycle.
Lausen says this new information is significant in explaining why this habitat is so enticing to bats.
“It never occurred to us. Suddenly, we learned hibernation isn’t just the use of a hole in the ground. It’s the whole surrounding area,” she says.
This also motivated the biologist to stop the area from being logged.
When approached, BC Timber Sales recognized her concerns and took the cut block off the market for the duration of Lausen’s research. They even came on board among a long list of supporters to the gating project.
Gates were clearly needed considering the traffic the old mine sees despite dangers. Last winter when Lausen researched, the area was treacherous. Icicles dripped and snapped over her hard-hatted head and her cramp-ons helped grip the ice below as she netted bats at the mine’s entry.
It was in winter when she also discovered a geocache treasure chest deep inside the mine. People engage in the GPS treasure-hunting activity on a world-wide scale and Lausen found people signing into the geocache log book even in winter while bats were hibernating.
The two gates installed were specially designed to keep people out while letting bats in. The grates are spaced five inches apart to prevent people from sliding through and run three feet horizontally so that the bats in flight can glide inside.
“The larger species may not be able to aim for a tiny hole,” says Lausen.
Two half culverts top the gates to accommodate silver-haired bats that likely wouldn’t fly through the grates. They are impossible for people to use to access the mine because they extend too far above treacherous ground on the inside. With people kept out, Lausen hopes bats will still find their home hospitable.
“It will be interesting to see how they react with the gate. It’s an experiment,” she says.
In addition to a great effort by the Nature Conservancy Canada many others have come on board to make this happen.
Despite the enormity of the gating project which typically costs the Ministry of Mines $100,000, this cost came in at $27,000 with the help of Lewis Franklin, a park exhibit fabricator and Steve Blackmore who builds wildlife enclosures and is part of the cave conservancy. His colleagues, including Phil Whitfield, president of the Canadian Cave Conservency, all volunteered their time, raising money for the Conservancy.
“They are by far the most qualified crew do to this work given that both Steve and Lewis build wildlife enclosures for a living and this same team has installed bat-friendly gates on caves in Horne Lake Provincial Park… It is unfortunate that most of the gating of mines that has taken place in the province to date has not employed this crew, but this might be changing after this project,” says Lausen. “I haven’t met a caver yet who isn’t interested in bats.”
Ironically, the woman who enters caves for research is admittedly not a caver. In fact, she considers herself claustrophobic.
“I first did caving in Canmore to learn how to do this and I hyperventilated,” she says. “If it’s for the bats, I just focus and I am good to go.”
Queen Victoria Mine will still be accessible with permission. Young naturalist clubs and geologists, for example, can get permission to enter in summertime.
“We just want to have control because we can do things such as have people clean their boots before entering,” says Lausen.
All 16 species of bats are at risk. While White Nose threatens 14, the other two migrating species are threatened by wind turbines.
Saving a cryptic creature
Until a year ago, bats were still listed as vermin in the province of Saskatchewan. So, if a person found them in their home, they were allowed to exterminate.
The mammal, while being incredibly interesting, is victim to popular culture as much as the White Nose Fungus.
Juliet Craig works with the Kootenay Community Bat project educating people about the cryptic creature.
“Somewhere along the way, people were taught not to like bats,” she says.
Unlike the grand caribou or cute marmot, games and movies often demonize bats putting them into the monster role. As she teaches about building a backyard bat house and getting people on board with bat counts, Craig’s work involves changing peoples’ perspectives.
“I love it,” Craig says. “It poses a challenge when you’ve promoting conservation of a species that most people don’t like.”
“Bats are cryptic,” says biologist Cori Lausen. “They hide all the time and come out at night.”
But Lausen definitely doesn’t have that common leeriness about bats. A few years ago she had a Big Brown Bat that flew around her house at night.
“He would swoop around above me and my husband while we slept,” she says.
Today, she and Craig share custody of Lily, a Hoary Bat with a broken wing. The duo uses her as they educate the public about bats trying to get people on board with saving the important mammal.
According to Lausen, a predicted 90 per cent death rate among bats when White Nose Syndrome hits should alarm folks — if not for the conservation of the species, for what it would do to the forest and agriculture in the region.
Bats are the primary feeder of nighttime insects. While that means they take a bite out of the insect population, they also keep moth numbers down.
“What’s going to happen to our forests and agriculture when all our natural predators of insect pests are gone?” she asks.
Little known bat facts:
Bats are the only flying mammal.
Bats are the primary consumer of nighttime insects.
Bats can live up to 40 years.
Most bats give birth to just one pup per year.
Of the 20 species of bats in Canada, British Columbia has 16