New Haven Writer Shelters - And Befriends - Endangered Bats In 'Flying Blind'

Nov 12, 2013

By now, white nose syndrome -- a disease that's threatening vast numbers of bats -- is probably a term familiar to even the most pedestrian wildlife observer. The highly infectious disease, caused by an invasive fungus in caves in North America, is particularly threatening to bats that hibernate in caves and mines. In Vermont, that's two out every three bats.

According to Scott Darling, a wildlife biologist at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, white nose syndrome was first documented in New York in 2006 and Vermont in 2008. "Since then, we've lost upwards of 90 percent of some of our bat species," Darling told VPR last spring. "And it’s killed about an estimated five to seven million bats across the U.S.” Biologists and researchers have struggled to stop the spread of the illness -- without much success.

"There's a clear arc of change in this book from somebody who was terrified of bats to somebody who has a profound admiration for them, bordering on affection." - Don Mitchell

Enter Don Mitchell, a retired Middlebury College lecturer who, at first, felt no sympathy for the besieged creatures. Mitchell, who lives on Treleven Farm in New Haven, was also deeply distrustful of the government -- but when officials from the Department of Fish and Wildlife asked him to make improvements to his land to create habitat for an endangered bat species, Mitchell acquiesced. And he learned a lot about himself in the process. He wrote about his experience in Flying Blind: One Man's Adventures Battling Buckthorn, Making Peace with Authority, and Creating a Home for Endangered Bats. Mitchell joined Vermont Edition's Jane Lindholm to talk about his land, his life and how bats managed to fly in the face of his assumptions about both.

Also on the show, we learned about two different programs which fund low income housing in Vermont.

On a transformed relationship with bats

"There's a clear arc of change in this book from somebody who was terrified of bats to somebody who has a profound admiration for them, bordering on affection ... I got involved in a contract with a branch of the federal government. Within the Natural Resources Conservation Service, there's a program called WHIP - Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program ... The contract paid me an embarrassingly small amount of money to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours enhancing the habitat for bats on the farm."

On controlling invasive species to improve bat habitat

"That work took me roughly two years of on-and-off effort, and it was some of the most demanding, spirit-numbing work I could ever imagine asking someone to do. I mean, in 2009 I was on the faculty at Middlebury College. In 2010, I was on my hands and knees, day after day, crawling through woods, plucking out garlic mustard and sticking the plants in plastic bags so the seeds would never get a chance to germinate. And I thought, ‘That’s a step down in the world.’"

"I mean, in 2009 I was on the faculty at Middlebury College. In 2010, I was on my hands and knees, day after day, crawling through woods, plucking out garlic mustard." - Don Mitchell

On the project's grand payoff

"In the summer of 2012, after I’d finished this habitat work, Scott Darling gave me a call and asked to come back with a team of biologists and try and trap bats again. And I said I would love that, because I hadn’t seen a bat in three years. And they arrived with their nets … And they began trapping bats, almost every 15 minutes. And for the first time in this entire project, I was looking at bats and staring at them in the eye, and saying, ‘Oh yes, they’re still here.’"

Read an excerpt of Flying Blind, from the chapter titled "Authority"

[…]

Amazingly, after several years of investigation the specific mechanism by which G. destructans killed the bats was still not fully understood. Maybe, though, it had to do with something as simple as disturbing their sleep. Like when your skin gets itchy, or you have eczema—who hasn’t spent a sleepless night because of that? Bats do normally rouse themselves from time to time during the winter months, but every time they do they draw down precious fat reserves that cannot be replaced till spring. There is only so much gasoline in the tank. With white- nose syndrome, bats wake up repeatedly and fly around at times when they’d be better off snoozing. Maybe they were dying of starvation, then, brought on by an irritation that the fungus triggered. There had been experiments with fungicides applied directly onto hibernating bats—but that, too, had seemed to interfere with their sleep patterns. Many of the treated bats had subsequently died, perhaps in response to the stress of medication.

Despite this grim report, Darling managed to exude a happy-warrior optimism. He was a man in love with his job, and white-nose syndrome had made the past few years exciting. Nothing like a challenge—or a series of challenges. One of the biggest was fostering ties across the smorgasbord of government agencies—at every level—whose agendas now included trying to address the causes and/or deal with the consequences of this strange disease. Then, too, there was the community of scientists in higher education settings and at research labs. Could they all pull together? Could they share information, and coordinate their efforts? From its first discovery in Howe Caverns, near Albany, white- nose syndrome was now killing bats in nineteen states and four Canadian provinces. Each of them had its own fish and wildlife agency and its own apparatus for addressing rogue events in the ecosystems under their purview. Organizations that had never had to work together now needed to function as a well-oiled machine. And quickly, too—before the moment to do something that would help the bats had passed.

The more Darling described the bureaucratic situation, the more it sounded like a stultifying desk job. Endless phone calls and e-mails to deal with, writing up reports and reviewing those of others. Giving expert testimony before legislative bodies. Attending professional conferences and roundtables. All the red tape and turf battles that come into play when the government tackles something. It seemed obvious that Scott enjoyed the chance to get out of the office and do a bit of field work—even under bone-chilling conditions, like this morning. Sizing up the habitat potential of our forest here, and making some decisions that were likely to improve it. Again and again he’d say: “If I were a bat, what I’d do right here is—” Then he’d describe an arc with a raised arm sweeping through the air. “After that, I’d bank around this way—do you see?” We didn’t, but we let him go ahead and do his thing. He was the bat man, and we watched in fascination.

When at last we got to the last pair of bat zones—the two half- acre circles that were near the farm pond, slated for enhancement as foraging areas rather than for roosting—Scott started marking trees with a blue X to indicate that they should stay. These were far less numerous than the trees he felt should go, so that saved time and paint. In general, he felt that any tree less than seven inches DBH—diameter at breast height—should be taken down. And that meant a lot of trees, though most of them were low-value species with crooked trunks. Unacceptable Growing Stock and culls, in forestry vocabulary. Usable as firewood, but little more than that. The goal was to leave enough canopy-layer trees to reseed the forest floor and offer some high cover, but to remove the forest’s midstory trees that were presently inhibit- ing the bats’ success at foraging. Once the work had been completed, catching bugs and gobbling them in flight would be much easier. The bats would presumably take note of their success rate, so they’d make a point of coming back here to chow down.

By the time our hike was finished, my teeth were chattering; that made it hard to speak. Scott was still gloveless and hatless, but his hands were warm. He seemed pretty stoked—thrilled is not too strong a word—about our forest’s possibilities for bats, and he wanted to come back when the work was done and see things then. He wanted to spend another night in the woods here, trying to find out if any bats had found the roost trees. If the bats had found them—I took that to mean he thought there still would be some bats to find. Underneath his spokesperson’s mask of gloom and doom, I could sense that he was basically an optimist. Now a passing squall of snow began to bleach the landscape, but the morning’s work was done. Everybody got into their vehicles and hit the road; I pulled my chainsaw from the Batmobile’s tool box and brought it in the house to tune it up and file its teeth. Starting on the first of November, we had work to do.

From Flying Blind: One Man's Adventures Battling Buckthorn, Making Peace with Authority, and Creating a Home for Endangered Bats by Don Mitchell. Copyright 2013 by Don Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Chelsea Green Publishing.