Conservationists Build Artificial Cave To Save Bats
MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Tenn.- Tennessee conservationists say they can't wait any longer to address an epidemic that's wiping out the bat population. That's why they've chosen to build an artificial cave in Montgomery County to help address White Nose Syndrome (WNS). It's believed to be the first of its kind in the world.
"The urgency around WNS is driving us to act," Gina Hancock, State Director of the Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, explained.
Bats provide natural pest control because they eat the insects that largely damage crops. If they become extinct, farmers will have to use more pesticide and the insect population will be out of control.
In 2010 the first case of WNS was reported in Tennessee and has since spread to multiple counties. According to the Nature Conservancy, it was first detected in the United States in 2006 and has spread to 19 states and 4 Canadian provinces.
"We're sort of replicating a natural cave so when bats are hibernating they like it really, really cold," Cory Holliday, Cave & Karst Program Director with the Conservancy said as he directed a tour.
WNS is an epidemic that conservationists are not sure how to solve. That's why in Tennessee they're calling the manmade cave an experiment.
"Basically it just causes (bats) to use up all of their fat reserved while hibernating and they're not able to make it through the winter," said Holliday.
The cement cave is dark and cold. Temperatures will be kept between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit with 85% humidity. The ceilings are textured to give bats something to hold onto and surveillance cameras can monitor their activity. More than 200,000 bats could fit inside, but only 5,000 to 10,000 are expected initially.
"WNS is a huge problem," Holliday stressed. "It's likely to be the worst wildlife disaster of our lifetime."
In the artificial cave, if fungus from WNS is detected something can be done about it.
"We have lots of things that can kill this fungus and are able to control it, but not in a natural cave environment," Holliday said. "Natural caves are very complex ecosystems with a lot of things living in there and everything that we know controls the fungus would be detrimental to the other things living in the cave."
It may take years before it's known if the artificial cave works. But given the progression of the disease, conservationists say something had to be done.
"In Tennessee we've seen 50% impact on our population so far," Hancock said. "The mortality rate for White Nose is 95%. So if they get the disease (there's a) 95% chance they're going to die from it."
That urgency lead the Nature Conservancy to proceed with the project even before they received all of the $300,000 of private funding needed to build it. Fundraising efforts continue.