Saving Bats One Cave and Mine at a Time

4/23/21
Merlin Tuttle

Caves are a critical resource for America’s bats. But thousands are no longer available for bats. Early American settlers relied on saltpeter from bat caves to produce gun powder. Then caves became lucrative for tourism, and many others were buried beneath cities or flooded by reservoirs. Even caves that were not destroyed often were rendered unsuitable for further bat use. Not surprisingly, the most cave-dependent bats quickly crashed to endangered status.

Today, nothing is more important to their recovery than identifying, restoring, and protecting key caves of past use. At that, Jim Kennedy is an unsung hero. Early in his career he joined me in critical research on the needs of cave-dwelling bats and worked with master bat-gate-building engineer, Roy Powers, to become an expert builder.

Kennedy became an expert at detecting evidence of past use by bats, and he has helped build gates to protect many of America’s most important remaining bat caves. He has also led workshops to train others. In 2013, he founded his own company, Kennedy Above/Under Ground, LLC. His teams have built 56 protective gates at 43 caves and abandoned mines where hundreds of thousands of bats have since recovered from severe losses.

Illustrative of the impact of protection at key locations, endangered gray bats at Bellamy Cave in Tennessee, increased from 65 to more than 150,000 once protected. And when a bad gate was replaced at Long Cave in Kentucky, gray bat numbers grew from zero to over 300,000. At Saltpeter Cave in Kentucky, endangered Indiana bats increased from zero to 7,000 when poor gates were replaced, air flow was restored, and winter visitor tours were terminated. Jim was involved in restoring each of these caves for use by bats. 

Jim Kennedy (right) and endangered Indiana Bat Recovery Team Leader, Rick Clausen, documenting recovery of Indiana bats (Myotis sodalis) in Saltpeter Cave, Kentucky. The species began rapid recovery in this cave following installation of an improved gate and airflow led by Jim.
Heather Garland, Tennessee Nature Conservancy Cave Specialist, and Merlin Tuttle conducting a winter census of recovered hibernating gray bats in Bellamy Cave.
Bellamy Cave in Tennessee provides both cold and warm roosts permitting year-around use by endangered gray bats (Myotis grisescens). Dramatic recovery occurred following protection. A 100-foot-long, 10-foot-high, perforated steel fence ensures long-term protection. The bats chose to fly over the fence instead of through the gaps. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy

Protection can be a real challenge. Even good gates, if wrongly located, can force abandonment partly because different species have unique needs. Gray bats, and other species that form large nursery colonies in caves, cannot tolerate full gates across entrances. Newly flying young slow down and become easy prey for predators. Jim has three ways of dealing with this. When a cave entrance is large enough, he leaves fly-over space above, relying on a perforated metal lip to prevent human entry. Alternatively, he sometimes builds a metal chute at the top, using perforated metal. When entrance size or shape precludes such approaches, he surrounds the entrance with a 10-foot-tall, perforated-steel fence. At Key Cave in Alabama, the Tennessee Valley Authority contracted Jim’s team early in 2021 to build a 390-foot fence that required 21 tons of steel. Its entrances were too small to permit young bats safe exit through gates.

This 390-foot-long fence now protects a nursery colony of endangered gray bats in Key Cave, Alabama. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy
Jim Kennedy's crew unloading some of the 21 tons of steel required to build a fence to protect an important gray bat nursery colony at Key Cave in Alabama. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy

Cave entrances on cliff faces can be especially difficult. At Bat Cave in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service contracted Jim and his team to haul tons of steel and equipment up a cliff face to gate the cave’s two entrances.  A chute gate and a fly-over gate were necessitated to accommodate the cave’s gray bat nursery colony. For his success, Jim received a prestigious “Wings Across America” award.

In July 2020, Jim and his team encountered a new challenge when gating New York’s Barton’s Hill Mine. The 200-year-old mine includes miles of passages with multiple entrances at different levels, creating strong “chimney-effect” air flow. Though the gate was built in mid-summer, Jim’s team had to use a chain saw and jack hammer to remove ice that was blocking the work area. Then, despite summer heat, they were forced to wear snow mobile suits while working in a strong 38-degree Fahrenheit breeze exiting through the entrance!

This mine shelters the largest hibernating bat population in the Northeast, approximately 120,000 bats of at least four species. As bats have lost natural roosts in caves, abandoned mines have become increasingly important. In fact, they now shelter millions of displaced bats. This gate will protect both bats and humans. The ice-covered floor drops approximately 100 feet nearly vertically into a pool of water, a dangerous trap for the unwary. The Barton’s Hill Mine is now safer for both bats and people.

This chute gate was used to protect the second entrance to Bat Cave. Chutes allow quick and safe access for maternity colonies that are unable to use traditional gate designs. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy
Bat Cave in Mark Twain National Forest, Missouri, showing difficult access. Tons of material had to be raised up cliff-face terrain using a pulley system. Protection of the cave's gray bat nursery colony required two kinds of gates. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy
Builders constructing the first of two gates at Bat Cave in Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. This gate employs perforated steel extending at right angles outward from the top to prevent visitors from climbing over while allowing bats ample fly-over space above the gate. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy

Protection and restoration of traditional, but long-lost hibernation sites may be the single most important option for restoring bats, especially those recently lost due to white-nose syndrome. Loss of key caves has forced millions of American bats to seek alternative shelter in less suitable locations where inappropriate temperature, and sudden shifts, can increase both the cost of rearing young in summer and that of hibernation in winter. This makes them less able to survive the stress of higher metabolic rates and forced arousals caused by white-nose syndrome and human disturbances. Furthermore, as the number of suitable roosting caves diminishes, bats are forced to expend more energy on longer travel between summer and winter roosts, leaving less and less for emergencies.

Preparing to gate New York's Barton’s Hill Mine. Home to the largest remaining hibernating bat population of the Northeast. Work here was especially challenging. Large amounts of ice had to be removed before work could even begin, and workers had to wear heavy coats in mid-July. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy
Heavy fog periodically created by cold air from the Barton’s Hill Mine. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy

The value of protecting key cave roosts has already been proven for gray bats. When I began my conservation efforts on their behalf, nearly six decades ago, the species was in precipitous decline and America’s leading experts were predicting extinction. Today, due to the combined help of federal, state, and private organizations, volunteer cavers, and expert gate builders like the late Roy Powers and his protégée, Jim Kennedy, we have millions more gray bats than when their extinction was predicted. Nevertheless, additional cave-dwelling species, especially the endangered Indiana bat and little brown bat, remain in widespread need of help, and invaluable opportunities for restoration remain.

Welders progress at Barton’s Hill Mine. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy
Jim Kennedy and his team pose at the completed Barton’s Hill Mine gate. Such gates have been extremely successful in protecting bats hibernating in caves and mines. However, identical gates are generally not tolerated by summer nursery colonies. Young bats must slow down to pass through, making them vulnerable to predators. Photo Copyright Jim Kennedy

Read More

WNS: Can a Cure Be Effective?

7/12/2019
By Merin Tuttle

 

Amid media announcements that the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome in bats has spread to California, and growing public concern, The Wildlife Society announced the most recent attempt to find a cure. On July 9, an article titled “Bacteria treatment helps bats survive white-nose syndrome,” suggested progress toward a cure. However, there is no evidence that human intervention can slow the spread or cure the disease. As I’ve reported, the best available studies from the Northeast indicate that population recovery at key sites is exceeding expectations, and that a cure is unnecessary, impractical to implement, and risks unintended negative consequences. 

(more…)

Read More

Book Review: Conservation and Ecology of Pennsylvania’s Bats

Book Review: Conservation and Ecology of Pennsylvania’s Bats
By Merlin Tuttle
3/16/17

Cal Butchkoski removing a big brown bat from a mist net during a Pennsylvania workshop.

Conservation and Ecology of Pennsylvania’s Bats, edited by C.M. Butchkoski, D.M. Reeder, G.G. Turner, and H.P. Whidden. 2017, is a publication of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science. Twenty-eight contributors cover a wide variety of conservation-relevant topics. It summarizes the key ecological and economic roles of bats and traces the history of bat research and conservation efforts in Pennsylvania, which has one of America’s finest records of conserving bats.

A Wind Energy Voluntary Cooperation Agreement is reported to have gained beneficial results. However, the environmental review process does not cover most of the state’s species. And at least one of the state’s largest companies has refused to participate. The potentially serious, yet inadequately documented wind energy impacts on bats remain as unresolved threats. (more…)

Read More

White-Nose Syndrome: New Policies Needed for Cave Management

Merlin has updated our White-Nose Syndrome resource page. As he explains, WNS has now spread from coast to coast despite our best efforts. There is no longer hope of stopping, slowing or finding a cure that can be effectively applied. It is time to focus on helping the survivors rebuild populations from resistant remnants. Further surveys to detect spread of WNS have become pointless. We can’t help except by strictly protecting weakened survivors from disturbance, especially during hibernation. Members of the National Speleological Society have been extremely cooperative in efforts to slow or stop WNS, even agreeing to cease activities in their favorite caves, including many that do not support bats. There is no longer justification for closure of caves not needed by bats. In fact permitting wider caver access increases opportunities for recognition and protection of caves of past importance to bats, where populations could be restored with protection. Many caves that once provided critical habitat for bats remain unprotected simply because they lost their bats so long ago, that their importance is no longer recognized. No one is better prepared to detect, report and help protect such sites than organized cavers, and it is time for governmental and private conservation organizations to maximize cooperation with this key group of concerned volunteers. In this update Merlin provides helpful guidance on recognition of long lost bat caves that could be restored and urges full collaboration.

Read More

Monitoring Impacts of WNS

Monitoring Impacts of White-Nose Syndrome (WNS): Decline and Stabilization in a Little Brown Bat Nursery Colony,

A Case History from New York

By Merlin D. Tuttle
9/25/16

 

A New York nursery colony of little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus) offers a window of opportunity for monitoring the impact and hoped for recovery of this recently devastated species. The colony occupies seven four-chamber, nursery-style bat houses provided by Lew and Dorothy Barnes. The houses were mounted on two sides of their barn near Lake Erie in western New York in the spring of 1995. By July 16, 1997 they had attracted 1,075 little brown myotis. Often aided by professional biologists, regular emergence counts were made between 1997 and 2013, providing potentially invaluable baseline data on WNS-induced population impacts.

(more…)

Read More

A Turning Point in Saving Bats from WNS

A Turning Point in Saving Bats from WNS
By Merlin Tuttle
6/7/2016

Given the extent and rate of spread of the fungus (Pseudogymnoascus destructans), which causes WNS in North America, it is time to admit that it can’t be stopped. It is here to stay, and further attempts to document or prevent its spread are more likely to exacerbate than alleviate bat mortality. The last thing that the relatively small numbers of survivors need now is more human disturbance during a period of critical stress. (more…)

Read More

WNS Update

Over the past year we’ve received numerous inquiries about the devastating impact of white-nose syndrome (WNS) and potential cures. Merlin is now convinced that the most important help we can provide is to leave hibernating bats strictly alone, improving the odds of survival for the most genetically resistant individuals who appear already to have begun the rebuilding process.

READ MORE on our updated resource page!!

Read More

Letters from a Young Bat Scientist-No. 7

Alexis "Bat Girl" Valentine's Science Fair Project
Alexis “Bat Girl” Valentine’s Science Fair Project March 2015

This is the final blog of a series introducing an inspiring young lady, Alexis Valentine, aka “Bat Girl” through her own words.

Hi Mr. & Mrs. Tuttle,

I hope you guys are doing good. Any exciting bat news?

We finally had our county science fair after lots of reschedules due to snow days. I’m happy to say that I got 1st place in the 6th–8th grade Jr. division in biological science and I got overall grand champion in the 6th–8th grade Jr. division.

I will go on to the regional competition at the end of March.

Thanks for all of your help!

Love,
Alexis “Bat-girl”

March 13, 2015

Hi Mr. & Mrs. Tuttle,

I got my comment sheets back from the regional History Fair. I received a rating of Excellent with many Superior markings. I didn’t win as much as I did at the science fair, but history really isn’t my thing but the judges really loved the info 🙂

They loved hearing about bats. One judge said that it was a great topic and that I was very enthusiastic and good at public speaking. They told me they look forward to me competing next year too.

Have fun on your trip and be safe.

Love,
Alexis, “Bat-girl”

Alexis getting questioned by the judges
Alexis getting questioned by the judges

April 2, 2015

Hi Mr. & Mrs. Tuttle

How are you guys doing?

I just got back from the regional science fair. I am happy to report that I won 3 awards with a total of $150 in prizes.

2 special awards:

*from the “Association of Women in Science”: $25 prize for outstanding science project by a young female.

*from “TN Association of Science Teachers”: $100 prize for outstanding demonstration in using the scientific method in research

Overall award (6th–8th grade):

*Excellence award & nominee to compete at the Broadcom Masters & a $25 prize

*received top 10% rating of all projects submitted out of 127

Different judges asked me questions for 2 straight hours and I competed against engineering projects and all kinds of other types of science projects.

Great news for the bats! More people now know about WNS.

Sincerely,
Alexis
“Bat-Girl”

We hope that her example will inspire additional young people as well as potential mentors. Such dedicated youth are our hope for the future.

Alexis's Acknowledgements
Alexis’s Acknowledgements

All photos were taken by Alexis’s mom and first mentor. Thank you, Amy, for helping to make this blog series possible!

Read More

Letters from a Young Bat Scientist-No. 3

Alexis Valentine’s, aka “Bat Girl,” history project on Leadership & Legacy about Dr. Merlin Tuttle. Photo taken by Alexis’ mom Amy

 

October 20, 2014

Hi Dr. Tuttle,

How are you? Hope you guys are doing good. Say hi to Mrs. Tuttle for me. Below are the questions for my history project on Leadership & Legacy. Thanks for helping me!

Love,
Alexis 🙂
“Bat Girl”

 

 

 

 

1. What event inspired you to want to protect bats?

2. Was it difficult to get BCI started?

3. What is your favorite bat?

4. Can you please give me a quote for my project about bat conservation?

Merlin as a teenager emerging from a tight passage in a Tennessee cave while searching for gray bats.

October 30, 2014

Hi Alexis,

The following are my responses to your questions. Good luck with your project!

1. It wasn’t just one event. It was an accumulation of seeing lots of gray bat colonies being destroyed. I was aware that these bats were harmless and highly beneficial. However public health officials were claiming them to be dangerous carriers of rabies despite the fact that no one had ever gotten rabies from a gray bat, or that getting rabies from any kind of bat was extremely rare. I couldn’t resist explaining this to cave owners, and when they changed from killing to protecting their bats, I was encouraged to do more.

2. Founding Bat Conservation International required hard work. When I founded BCI most people were extremely frightened of bats. Even leading conservation organizations avoided them like the plague, considering them to be too unpopular to be helped. I had to spend huge amounts of time preparing scientific documentation and learning to put claims of disease dangers in perspective. For example, I pointed out that while only two people, on average, die of bat rabies each year in the U.S. 20-30 are killed by dogs. How could we consider bats dangerous and dogs safe, given these facts? In the end the facts about bat values versus risks are so strong that they are easy to defend if we just arm ourselves with the facts. Great success in life can only be achieved by tackling great challenges.

3. I don’t have a favorite bat, though I especially enjoy working with carnivorous species, because they seem to be exceptionally intelligent. But even the tiny woolly bats that I recently worked with in Borneo turned out to be far smarter than I had ever imagined, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with them. Check out the video of them bumping me in the nose to gain my attention to feed them (see woolly bat blogs on my web site at merlintuttle.com).

4. Bats provide essential ecological services required to keep our planet healthy. We cannot ignore their plight without risking our own future.

Paula says hi.

Very best wishes,
Merlin

November 4, 2014

Hi Dr. Tuttle,

Thanks so much for answering my bat questions. History fair is in a couple of weeks. I’ll let you know how it goes. Science fair is coming up too. 🙂

My history project is called “Batman of BCI” and my science fair project is called “Bat Chat–using echolocation to determine WNS effects.”

Talk to you soon. Tell Mrs. Tuttle hi for me. Have fun and be safe on your next bat trip.

Have a “Bat”tastic Day,
Alexis
“Bat Girl”

 

Read More