Climbing Rocks at Night, Looking for Bats

By Bill Vogrin

How do you spend your Saturday nights?

Wildlife biologists with Colorado Parks and Wildlife spent the night of June 3 in a meadow below Devil’s Head mountain along Jackson Creek where they teamed with scientists from Colorado State University and the U.S. Forest Service to catch bats and show them to rock climbers who waited patiently in the dark.

The biologists slogged through muddy beaver ponds to erect nets, infrared cameras and acoustic bat detectors, then they waited for the web-winged mammals to swoop down out of the crags of the 9,749-foot mountain in search of food – insects – and drinks of water.

Why would CPW biologist Tina Jackson, species conservation coordinator, USFS biologist Mikele Painter, zoologist Robert Schorr of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University, and others give up their weekend evening to brave the cold of the Rampart Range between Deckers and Castle Rock in the Pike National Forest?

To gather data on bats and to see if there are any signs of the deadly “white nose syndrome” – a tissue-eating fungus that is devastating bat colonies on the East Coast and in the South and slowly approaching Colorado.

Why would rock climbers be there, too?

A scientist examines the wing of a bat for signs of deterioration, which could be a symptom of white-nose syndrome, a tissue-eating fungus killing millions of bats nationwide. Photos courtesy Bill Vogrin/Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

The scientists have appealed specifically to the state’s climbing community for help in their efforts to learn where bats roost and in what numbers as they brace for the approaching spread of the disease. Who better to enlist as citizen scientists and bat ambassadors than people who enjoy scaling cliffs and rocky outcroppings, and who encounter roosting bats much more frequently than earth-bound biologists?

One leader of the effort is Schorr, who helped found Climbers for Bat Conservation, www.climbersforbats.colostate.edu, and conceived of the collaboration between climbers, bat biologists and land managers as a way to learn more about bat roosting ecology and conservation.

“One intent of Climbers for Bat Conservation is to increase our knowledge about where bats roost, how many roost together in crevices and where large colonies exist that can help us understand bat populations,” Schorr said.

Devil’s Head with its cracks, crevices and outcroppings is an ideal bat habitat. It is located west of Castle Rock off Rampart Range Road.

Understanding them is a key to conserving them in the face of a disease that is wiping out colonies of bats… bats that consume insects and may slow the spread of diseases like West Nile virus.

CPW’s Jackson said the collaboration is an example of the scientific community thinking creatively to combat a huge threat.

“Bats can be very difficult to survey and any help we can get from the public is greatly appreciated,” Jackson said. “As we try to deal with the threats facing our native bat species it is collaborations like Climbers for Bat Conservation that will make a huge difference.”

Painter, of the USFS, called it a “good first effort” to bring together biologists and climbers in the field.

“We were able to talk about some of the gaps in scientific knowledge that have persisted because bat roosts in rock faces are relatively hard to get to,” Painter said. “I look forward to furthering the conversation and research partnerships with our local climbing community.”

 

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