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#Fridaysonthefarm: Helping Indiana Bats through 'Spooky' Declines

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Story by Molly Hippensteel and Ciji Taylor, NRCS; Photos by This American Land and USFWS

Each Friday, meet farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.  CLICK HERE  to view all #Fridaysonthefarmstories.

This Friday, meet Thomas and Wendy Belinda of Blair County, Pennsylvania and learn how they help improve habitat for the Indiana Bat.

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When most people think of bats, images of dark caves, vampires and Halloween come to mind. But actually, bats get a bad rap, and we often don’t know how important they are for controlling insects, pollinating plants, dispersing seeds and improving biodiversity.

Many of our nation’s bats are facing population declines to near-extinction levels, primarily because of disease and loss of habitat. One of those species is the Indiana bat, an endangered species that has experienced rapid declines since the 1960s.

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The Indiana bat, which has mouse-like ears, is found over the eastern half of the country. Indiana bats are a very social species, and they cluster together during hibernation. The bat got its name because the first one to be discovered was in 1928 in a cave in southern Indiana. The Indiana bat feeds on insects, and it is great for controlling mosquitoes and other flying pests.

In the summer, female Indiana bats gather into maternity colonies and each mother bat births, nurses and rears one pup under the peeling bark of an older-growth or diseased tree. The species spends its winters hibernating in caves or sometimes abandoned mines.

Unfortunately, this species is facing a new foe. White-nose syndrome, a fungal infection, is taking a toll on the Indiana bat and other bat species across the country, but there is hope.

Partnering for success

Landowners Thomas and Wendy Belinda of Blair County, Pennsylvania, live close to a bat cave.

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“There’s a well-known cave, the Hartman cave, lots and lots of bats winter there – it’s called a hibernacula,” said Mike. “It’s probably about a mile and a half as the crow flies from where they roost inside my house to the cave.”

A 2015 survey of the cave site showed that the bat population had dropped for 32,000 to just 70.

Due to the proximity to Canoe Creek State Park, hibernacula and known maternity colonies, we decided the Belinda property would be a good spot for a permanent easement to specifically manage for bats,” recalls Holly May, NRCS biologist.

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The easement was the result of communication and cooperation among several partners including the landowners, NRCS, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to help reduce the spread of white-nose syndrome, as well as promote protection of high-quality habitat.

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The Belindas are implementing a variety of sustainable forestry practices to restore more than 800 acres of forestland through the NRCS Healthy Forest Reserve Program. Through this program, the Belindas enrolled their land into a permanent conservation easement and have made a number of improvements, including removing competing trees, retaining highly preferred roosting trees and controlling invasive species.

“These organisms need our help. It’s a great time for everyone to pull together to try and help save bats,” said Mike Scafini, Pennsylvania Game Commission endangered mammal specialist.

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Bat story for image Mike Scafini examines a colony of bats for white-nose syndrome.

Habitat for bats

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“They like this area, the bats, because almost every tree you see that’s larger than your thigh is a tree species that is a high concern for good habitat,” Tom Belinda said.

“As the tree matures they tend to get bark characteristics that the bats like, and they can just creep right under those crevices and find someplace warm,” Holly said. “Typically the older the tree, the more nooks and crannies and habitat it’s going to offer, but as part of forest health management, you’ll need younger trees to support the next generation of and future generations of bats.”

Located in a key area adjacent to state game lands and nearly connecting to a nearby state park, the Belindas’ easement is part of a corridor of permanently protected Indiana bat habitat totaling approximately 21,000 acres.  NRCS staff are also working with other nearby landowners, which will expand this corridor even more. These efforts provide better quality and more secure summer breeding habitat for Indiana bats with the hope that the species will once again thrive in this area.

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“It’s just been awesome to be able to drive up the lane every day and realize that you can be a steward or something great,” says Tom.

Landowners interested in conservation easements or sustainable forestry practices should contact their local USDA service center.