A night at the bat house: Rehder Ranch serves as ground zero for bat research in Northwest Colorado
Steamboat Springs — As the sky grows dark above an old and empty ranch house near Lake Catamount, Rob Schorr and his team of researchers switch on their headlamps and start listening for the screeches.
In a few minutes, dozens and dozens of little brown bats will start to fly out of the attic.
The researchers want to catch as many of them as they can.
A few minutes before the bats start to stir, Jeremy Siemers is making some final adjustments on his laptop computer on the front porch as Schorr and helpers Justin Unrein and Carli Baum are carefully positioning a large aluminum frame that is filled with what looks like harp strings near the front door of the house.
To someone who isn’t briefed about this nocturnal research, it may appear as though Schorr and the team are auditioning to be in a future “Ghostbusters” movie.
But in about 30 minutes, the researchers will have bags full of bats.
Most bats that try to fly though the harp trap will get sucked down into a plastic bag and carefully picked up by the researchers.
But there is a slight challenge.
Bats aren’t stupid.
Because this is Night 2 of trapping the bats, some of the animals have learned the position of Schorr’s traps and will move to ignore them.
So the traps are switched around this night to try to trick the clever bats.
It’s just after 8 on this summer night.
Harrison Creek is roaring through a nearby meadow as it makes its way to Lake Catamount.
The researchers’ tents are pitched nearby.
The bats will come out soon.
A cruel disease
East of Colorado, millions of bats are being wiped out by a devastating and seemingly unstoppable disease.
A newly discovered fungus is causing white-nose syndrome, a rapidly spreading disease that since 2006 has killed off millions of bats in the eastern United States and Canada.
And it’s edging closer to Colorado.
In some areas, whole populations of bats have vanished, leaving the skies without an important predator that is an expert at hunting mosquitoes and other insects that bother humans and damage crops.
The fungus kills bats in a very cruel way.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Liza Rossi said the fungus affects hibernating bats in the winter by making them itchy and waking them up at times they usually are not awake.
“They come out during the day and much more frequently, and they burn through their fat reserves,” Rossi said. “It’s changing their needs.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the fungus has killed more than 5.5 million bats in the U.S. and Canada.
In 2010, it was feared the disease had emerged in a cave in Oklahoma, but today it appears to have been a false alarm and no infested bats have been found so close to Colorado since.
Scientists across the country are hurrying to learn more about the disease, its impact and how it can be prevented.
That’s because the disease’s spread could continue to have a profound impact on the country’s ecology and economy.
In Steamboat Springs, researchers have a rare and unique window into the world of bats that someday could help in the fight against white-nose.
Bagged and tagged
Bats don’t seem to enjoy being captured and handled by strangers.
When Schorr’s team of researchers with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program started plucking them from the traps after 9 p.m., some of the bats immediately tried to bite through the researchers’ latex or leather gloves.
They squirm and wiggle around in your hand.
They fly at high speeds just inches from your face.
And when they open their mouths, a very small but still menacing set of sharp teeth is revealed.
On the faces of the researchers, though, there is no intimidation or nervousness, only excitement.
Here at this old ranch, researchers are hoping to better understand an animal they still have many questions about.
When the bats are caught, they are put in soft fabric bags and taken to a rustic table littered with equipment.
Under a lamp, Schorr and Siemers start to go through a routine.
They first examine the bat to determine its relative age and sex, and then it is placed upside down in a medicine bottle to be weighed.
After that, each bat is outfitted with a passive integrated transponder, or PIT tag.
The device is about the size of a grain of rice and is injected into the bat’s wing for the rest of its life.
For years to come, if the bat is caught again, it can be scanned to display a unique ID number.
“We’re going to try to revisit them several times over the next couple of years and see how the population has changed over time so we have baseline data,” Schorr said. “It’s a broader question of trying to figure out what the population change might be should a disease like white-nose syndrome make its way to Colorado.”
With a baseline count of the bat population, state wildlife agencies may be able to more quickly detect the presence of white-nose and react before it’s too late.
Technology is making this process easier.
An antenna installed at the ranch house automatically scans the PIT tags on the bats as they fly in and out of the building.
The PIT tagging allows researchers to do many things.
If an unlucky bat is recaptured twice in one evening, for instance, it can be weighed again to get an idea of how many grams’ worth of insects it has consumed during a set time period.
The researchers also can track the age of bats at this maternity colony near Steamboat Springs and see how many are returning to the same place.
“With the unique tags, we then develop a history for them,” Schorr said. “We can develop what’s called an encounter history, and from that we can put that encounter history into mathematical models to predict things like capture probability and survival over time, which is what we really want to know. How do they survive over time and stabilize populations? And we can estimate the population size.”
The Rehder Ranch is thought to be one of the larger maternity roosts in the state of Colorado, and it has turned into an ideal place for bat research.
Here, hundreds of bats are thought to live inside the historic structures.
One recent count logged more than 600 bats.
The disease is too close for comfort.
In 2012, after white-nose syndrome reportedly had been detected nearby in a cave in Oklahoma and in other states west of the Mississippi River, Colorado Parks and Wildlife drafted a response plan to the disease.
“The spread of WNS into Colorado poses a threat to the state’s economy and ecology because of the role native bat species play in consuming night flying insects and contributing to cave ecosystems,” the wildlife agency wrote in the plan.
There are 18 species of bats native to Colorado, and 13 of them hibernate, meaning they may be susceptible to the disease if it arrives.
The little brown bat that is common here in Steamboat is one of the species already being hit hard by white-nose.
Parks and Wildlife has vowed to prepare for the disease before it gets here.
The work so far entails letting researchers like Schorr study bats here to better understand their behavior and population sizes.
Routt County also will host new bat monitoring sites that will become part of the North American Bat Monitoring Program, a nationwide effort to track bats.
“Like any other species, the better understanding we have of its habitat needs, the harder we can work to protect them,” Rossi said. “This work will give us a much better baseline of the bat population in Colorado, which I think is important. The other thing is that it will hopefully allow us to respond if (white-nose) is detected close.”
White-nose syndrome is named for the white substance that is found on the wings and noses of the bats afflicted by the disease.
The disease first was discovered in a cave in New York in winter 2006 and has spread to at least 19 states and four Canadian provinces, according to Parks and Wildlife.
The spotting of the fungus in Oklahoma, hundreds of miles away from the nearest cave confirmed to harbor the disease, was alarming to researchers.
However, subsequent testing on the bat that was thought to have the disease showed the original detection was a false positive.
Although it isn’t in a neighboring state yet, the disease continues to edge closer to Colorado.
As of this year, it’s as close as Missouri now, and scientists think it can be spread by bats and humans that move the fungus.
As the fungus spreads from cave to cave, state wildlife agencies are moving quickly to adopt response plans, and a lot is at stake.
Researchers estimate bats bring a value of roughly $22.9 billion per year by reducing the need and cost of pesticide applications.
“Without bats, crop yields are affected. Pesticide applications go up,” said Gary McCracken, the head of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “Even if our estimates were quartered, they clearly show how bats have enormous potential to influence the economics of agriculture and forestry.”
A bat is a hard thing to study.
They come out at night.
They fly fast.
This hasn’t stopped Colorado Parks and Wildlife Biologist Dan Neubaum from spending 15 years studying bats, one of the most understudied species of the state.
Today, technology is getting better, and more people than ever are wanting to learn about bats and fund research projects.
In a weird way, Neubaum said, we have white-nose to thank.
“It has brought attention to the fact there is a gaping whole in the natural history of these species that would be good to fill in because we don’t know how to cope with conditions like this disease without this information,” he said.
One of the biggest questions scientists here in Colorado still are trying to answer is where bat species go to hibernate during the winter.
Neubaum said a study done two years ago in Carbondale found that little brown bats were leaving urban buildings in late summer and flying a short distance to take up residence in the crevices of boulder fields on nearby mountains.
“We couldn’t confirm (that’s where they were hibernating), though, because the small transmitter we used on that species didn’t last long enough to say they stayed put in those boulder fields,” he said.
Why does it matter where the bats go when they leave Steamboat in mid-September?
“It’s difficult to manage for a species when you don’t know where they spend half of the year,” Neubaum said. “In the case of white-nose syndrome, winter time is when they would be affected, so you really want to learn where these guys are going.”
Neubaum said it isn’t known yet whether white-nose will march across the Great Plains and make it to Colorado and other Western states.
Based on surveys though, he said it is thought the caves and mines in Colorado could be suitable places to harvest the fungus just like in the Eastern United States.
If little brown bats here do indeed spend their time spread out in rock crevices as suspected, they could be less susceptible to the disease than their peers on the east cost that cluster together in the thousands in a cave to hibernate.
“The risk of it spreading here could be lower,” Neubaum said.
A cool species
Henry Rehder didn’t enjoy having bats living in his family’s ranch house.
People in Steamboat don’t like living with them either.
Al Deeds, of Hilltop Pest Control, estimates that he removes bats and guano from 60 to 100 homes each year.
Rehder especially didn’t like the bats at his rustic and isolated ranch.
He wanted them gone so badly that his wife, Helen, said he reportedly took a hose, attached it to the exhaust pipe of his car and tried to kill the bats that were taking up residence in his attic.
Other, less extreme measures had failed.
The battle was lost, though, and the bats continue to thrive in his home years after the Rehders passed away.
But what the Rehders never could have foreseen is how important their ranch and its large maternal colony of bats would become.
The Rehders bequeathed their 250-acre sheep ranch to the Yampa Valley Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy to have it become a nature preserve and community research center.
The Land Trust and local wildlife agencies see the value in the bats.
So in recent years, the Land Trust has been working with the U.S. Forest Service to build bat houses nearby so the ranch house can be reclaimed and restored.
In the meantime, it remains a sort of ground zero in the state for bat research.
“We got really lucky working with (Executive Director Susan Dorsey) at the Yampa Valley Land Trust,” Schorr said, adding that the large maternity colonies here and at another location at the Carpenter Ranch in Hayden are perfect places to keep coming back to for research.
Last year, a bat program put together by Parks and Wildlife, Yampatika and the Land Trust drew a big crowd to the ranch.
Children enjoyed seeing the bats and counting them as they left the buildings after dark.
Slowly but surely, bats are becoming less scary.
They’re also getting more attention.
Although it continues to kill bats, white-nose syndrome has spurred something that could be meaningful in the long run.
It’s raised people’s awareness about bats, Rossi said.
The disease has made them less of a demon of the night in the eyes of the public and more of a valuable, unique species worthy of protection.
Wildlife agencies across the country are forming action plans to mitigate the effect of white-nose.
And bat conservationists are educating the public about the importance of an animal many people still fear.
When bat expert Rob Mies brought some bats to the Bud Werner Memorial Library in 2010, he was greeted by an overflow crowd of excited children and their parents.
“Bats are an under-appreciated species,” Rossi said. “But when people start thinking and learning about them, they’re one of the coolest species.”
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