Drought, flood, and fire: an unexpected habitat recipe for at-risk bats

Mike Saxton is an ecologist restoration specialist at Shaw Nature Reserve, a 10 km2 mosaic of restored and reconstructed woodlands, prairies, wetlands, and riparian forest along the Meramec River in Gray Summit, Missouri.

For most land managers, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Between invasive species management, native seed collection and prescribed fire implementation, there are never enough boots on the ground. Add in equipment break downs, erratic weather and administrative tasks and it’s no surprise that with so many balls in the air, something gets dropped. Far too often, we drop the ball on science and monitoring, which are critically important for biodiversity-driven ecosystem management and restoration. Research and monitoring can, in some cases, be expensive; usually they take a certain amount of specialization, and they most certainly take time. For these reasons and many others, land managers build partnerships with universities, collaborate with outside agencies, and engage the public in community science to meet research and monitoring needs.

What follows is an example of a highly successful partnership between non-profit organizations, a private consulting group, and a federal agency to better understand and protect a federally endangered species.

A female Indiana bat, “Celeste”, captured during mist netting surveys at Shaw Nature Reserve in 2017 and 2019. Photo credit: Cassidy Moody.

In 2017, Shaw Nature Reserve hosted a Bioblitz partnering with the non-profit Academy of Science, St. Louis. For two days, participants combed the area looking for as many plant and animal species as they could find. A single federally endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) was captured during an evening mist netting session along a riparian corridor, marking the first time this species was documented at the Nature Reserve.

Wildheart Ecology, the local consulting firm which carried out the Bioblitz bat survey, returned in the summer of 2018 to deploy acoustic detectors to further document bat populations at the Nature Reserve. The data revealed the presence of nine different species, including the Indiana bat, the endangered gray bat (Myotis grisescens), and several other species of conservation concern.

The audio signature of an Indiana bat, captured by detectors at Shaw Nature Reserve. Courtesy: Wildheart Ecology.

After these surprising and impressive findings, scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service carried out mist netting in summer 2019 at the Nature Reserve to gather more information about the federally endangered population of Indiana bats. Netted individuals were tagged and fitted with tiny transponders. Using telemetry, USFWS staff were able to locate a maternal roost colony tree in the Meramec River flood plain. After multiple emergence sampling events conducted at dusk, the population is estimated to be 150+ individuals, making it one of the largest recorded in Missouri.

Indiana bat roost site at Shaw Nature Reserve. Photo credit: Cassidy Moody.

So how did Shaw Nature Reserve end up with one of the state’s largest populations of at-risk bat species? The story begins in fall 2015, when a major flooding event on the Meramec River deposited large amounts of woody biomass and created logjams in the Nature Reserve’s floodplain. Another major flooding event in the spring 2017 compounded these conditions. In the fall of 2017, moderate drought gripped the region, drying leaf litter and woody fuels on the forest floor. In November of that year and on a low humidity day in drought conditions, we conducted a prescribed fire that thoroughly burned the floodplain forest, which normally does not carry fire. The flames crept into flood-debris logjams, causing a major conflagration. Dozens of floodplain forest trees died — mostly silver maple, elm and cottonwood— leaving an open patch of larger-diameter snags, or upright dead trees. It is in these snags where the federally-endangered Indiana bats have found a home. Turns out, the serendipitous convergence of flood, drought, and fire created just the ideal conditions. Couple that with high-quality foraging areas across a healthy, diverse, managed landscape and this population is thriving.

Indiana bat roost habitat along the Meramec River at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri. Photo credit: Cassidy Moody.

Current status of Indiana Bats

Unfortunately, like many bat species, the Indiana bat has been in decline and imperiled by human disturbance and disease. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hibernating Indiana bats are especially vulnerable to disturbance, since they often congregate in large numbers – from 20,000 to 50,000 – to overwinter. A large number of deaths can occur if humans disturb these caves during hibernation. While other factors are also responsible for their decline, the devastating wildlife disease known as white-nose syndrome — discovered in 2006 — is a serious threat to the long-term survival of the species.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service population status update, the states with largest net loss of Indiana Bats since 2007 (% decline since 2007) includes:

1. Indiana: -53,220 (-22%)
2. New York: -39,367 (-75%)
3. Missouri: -18,157 (-9%)
4. Kentucky: -15,220 (-21%)
5. West Virginia: -14,125 (-96%)
6. Tennessee -6,509 (-73%)
7. Ohio: -4,739 (-62%)
8. Pennsylvania: -1,027 (-99%)

What Can Be Done

With thoughtful management and strategic planning, conservation practitioners can conserve and restore bat habitat. Providing a continuous supply of roosting trees and maintaining a habitat structure to facilitate foraging are key aspects of restoration and management plans for bats. According to the Beneficial Forest Management Practices for White Nose Syndrome-affected Bats, below are some best-practice guidelines for achieving these goals:

  • Harvest timber during the hibernation period to eliminate or significantly reduces the likelihood of direct fatality or injury to tree-roosting bats.
  • Create large-diameter snags and canopy gaps, via girdling or chemical (e.g., “hack and squirt”) methods, to increase sun exposure to existing and potential roost trees.
  • Increasing midstory openness to facilitate travel corridors and foraging opportunities via increased mobility and insect prey detection.
  • Retain or create large-diameter snags during forest regeneration harvests or when managing stands affected by windthrow or disease/insect outbreaks.
  • Limit aerial or broadcast spraying near known hibernacula, maternity sites, and surface karst features, unless it can be demonstrated that it would have no adverse impact on bat populations or habitat.
  • Avoid disturbances near maternal roost sites or colonies when possible.
  • Fell hazard trees that appear to provide bat roosting habitat and do not pose an imminent danger to human safety or property during winter (hibernation period) and avoid removing them during June and July when non-flying bat pups may be present.
  • Avoid burning during cold periods since this can be detrimental to colonies of some species if individuals cannot escape smoke and heat from fires.
  • Apply low-intensity fires when possible since high-intensity fires are more likely to cause injury.
  • Account for caves, mines, important rock features, bridges, and other artificial structures when developing burn plans since these locations are often occupied by roosting or hibernating bats.
  • Remove hazard trees and construct fire-lines during winter, when possible, to reduce chances of removing occupied roost trees or disturbing maternity colonies.
  • Protect known maternity roost trees and exceptionally high-quality potential roost trees (e.g., large snags or large-diameter live trees with lots of exfoliating bark) from fire by removing fuels from around their base prior to ignition.
  • Limit management activities and disturbances near cave entrances.
  • Eradicate and control invasive plants to improve habitat quality for bats.

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