Summit County boy builds bat houses for Eagle Scout project
As a fungal disease decimates bat populations in the eastern United States, a Summit County boy is working to offer local bats a haven.
Andy Rohlf, 17, will build 25 bat houses for his Eagle Scout project and install them on the homes of interested Summit residents.
He said he hopes the houses will provide habitat for the big brown bat, a species common in Summit and Colorado.
Big brown bats are large bats with medium-sized, rounded ears and a wingspan of about 13 inches. They vary in color from russet to almost black and chocolate shades of brown, and they are more closely associated with humans and development than any bat in North America because they commonly live in manmade structures.
The insect-eating mammals were threatened by the once popular and highly toxic insecticide DDT.
In Colorado, big brown bats hibernate in rock crevices, mines, caves, fissures, storm sewers and a variety of other places for five to six months in the winter.
Unlike other hibernating animals, like bears, the bats lower their body temperatures to the surrounding temperature while they sleep, so they prefer winter roosts that stay cool but above freezing, said Dan Neubaum, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife conservation biologist based in Grand Junction.
A BAT-KILLING FUNGUS
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome, which has wiped out some populations of bats and closed caves to people throughout the eastern U.S., thrives in cool, humid environments, Neubaum said. The fungus grows on the bats while they sleep in the winter.
Humans likely introduced the fungus, he said, then it spread as the bats tried to escape it by relocating to new caves. The syndrome erupted in upstate New York in 2006, then radiated south through the Appalachian Mountains, north to Canada and west to Missouri, killing more than a million bats.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to list one bat species, the northern long-eared bat, as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act in April due to white-nose syndrome.
“White-nose syndrome is having a devastating effect on the nation’s bat populations, which play a vital role in sustaining a healthy environment and save billions of dollars by controlling forest and agricultural pests,” Tom Melius, Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest regional director, said in a statement released in mid-January. “We need to do what we can to make sure we are putting commonsense protections in place that support vulnerable bat species.”
Federal officials created a national white-nose syndrome response plan, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has granted more than $20 million to institutions and federal and state agencies for research and response.
“White-nose syndrome to our knowledge has not made it to Colorado yet, which is a good thing,” Neubaum said.
Colorado biologists have plenty of unanswered questions about the state’s bats, he said, and researchers are collecting data on the animals to create a baseline in case the disease spreads to the West. They have been placing tiny transmitters on the bats for three to six weeks in the fall to track their locations.
GET YOUR BAT HOUSES
Neubaum said although use of bat houses by bats can be hit or miss, he encourages folks interested to install them anyway.
“You’re giving them the best chance they can have in the summer time to make a go of it,” he said.
The most successful bat houses tend to be installed on homes close to where resident bats are already coming and going, he said, though he’s heard of random cases where bat houses on barns or trees have worked.
Rohlf, of Summit Cove, is consulting with the Michigan-based Organization for Bat Conservation for his project.
He plans to install the bat houses so they are 15 feet off the ground. He will face them toward the south and paint them a dark color so they stay warm through the winter.
The bat houses will be 13 by 24 inches, and each will comfortably fit 10 to 15 bats, he said.
“They’re called big brown bats, but they’re really not that big,” he said. “They’re pretty cute actually.”
Rohlf plans to become an exotic animal veterinarian and said he was inspired to build bat houses after he drove by birdhouses between Dillon and Keystone that he thought could use repairs.
“I was looking for an animal I can help,” he said. “I definitely have a passion for animals, and that’s the current one needing help up here.”
Rohlf plans to spend three days in March building and setting up the houses. He will raise funds to cover the $350 to $400 cost of supplies, he said, and he is not charging residents for the boxes he installs on their houses.
To donate or inquire about receiving a bat house, contact Andy Rohlf at (970) 485-3638 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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