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Working on the bat problem

27 July 2012

BISMARCK (UTN) – How did you spend your summer vacation?

If it was anything like the three science students who went to California, you have plenty to talk about. In their case it’s not about Hollywood.

It’s about bats – those mysterious and misunderstood critters who flap through the night and into our dreams.

Steven P. Walker of United Tribes and Monica Bailey from the University of Minnesota, spent six weeks in the San Francisco Bay area along with graduate mentor Nicholas Kludt from the University of North Dakota.

As part of a paid internship at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA, they worked with scientists on their project to improve understanding about bat habitat in the West-River region of North Dakota.

“There’ve only been a few research studies about bats in North Dakota,” said Bailey at United Tribes during a July 20 public presentation that concluded the internship.

Biology student Monica Bailey (Standing Rock Tribe) University of Minnesota, presents results from the study of bat habitat. Looking on are her colleagues, at left, Nicholas Kludt, University of North Dakota, and Steven P. Walker (Three Affiliated) United Tribes Technical College.
DENNIS J. NEUMANN<>United Tribes News

Focusing on three of the 11 bat species found in North Dakota, they discovered bats are more than just creepy movie extras. They perform valuable services in the ecosystem, like controlling insects and pests. Their economic importance to the ag industry is huge – valued at roughly $30 million per year nationwide.

The reason to know these things – the reason their summer internship was so interesting – is because there’s a villain. “The services bats provide are at risk,” said Bailey.

The three science interns created a descriptive poster and a Power Point program about their study of three species of bats and their habitat in western North Dakota. DENNIS J. NEUMANN<>United Tribes News

Bats in the U.S. are threatened from a biological source, a disease known as White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). First identified in 2006, the deadly fungus causes infected bats to show a visible white powdery substance around the nose, ears and wings. Ultimately it leads to death.

Bat populations across eastern North America are being decimated. While it has not reached North Dakota, the infection is steadily moving westward and is now in Iowa. Loss of bats to farming means more money to spray pesticides on crops and higher food costs for consumers. Another worry is the possibility of an increase in diseases spread by mosquitoes.

“The problem is, we have very limited knowledge of where bats live,” said Walker during the presentation at UTTC. “If you don’t know where something is at, how do you monitor it?”

For their project, the students followed a thread of research underway at North Dakota State University by graduate student Paul Barnhart and Dr. Erin Gillam. The data, from acoustic detectors NDSU placed at selected locations in western North Dakota, helped the student researchers determine the characteristics of preferred bat habitat. Using GIS, they mapped the general distribution of critical habitat in the three species. Knowing where the bats prefer to hang out could aid in species conservation with the approach of the disease.

Clearly the project advanced the general knowledge about bats in western North Dakota. The data may have immediate use in establishing monitoring efforts. According to press reports, the state is creating a surveillance program to detect the entry of WNS into North Dakota.

The students also looked at the potential for human impact on bats from the current boom of oil development in the region. They matched the bat habitat map with that of Williston Basin oil activity and found strong correlations.

“Can we say they are impacting them based on our project,” questioned Kludt at the UTTC presentation. “No. But if we were to study this further, chances are yes. Oil development is very heavy in this general region.”

Other potential for future research includes studying bats over time and studying them in eastern North Dakota since WNS is spreading from the east.

A poster and Power Point made from the bat habitat study carry the title “Habitat Preferences For North Dakota Myotis Bats: Using Land Cover To Predict Distribution Patterns.” The work was made possible by the Curriculum Improvement Partnership Award for the Integration of Research (CIPAIR), funded by NASA. Rebekah Olson and Mandy Guinn of the United Tribes Tribal Environmental Science mentored the students. Paul Barnhart and Dr. Erin Gillam lent data and support. The University of Minnesota, NDSU and UND were involved, along with Cindy Schmidt at NASA, who is associated with the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute.

Outside of working on their amazing summer science project, the student team took side trips to Silicon Valley, Alcatraz Island, deep sea fishing, Yosemite Park and to the beach for volleyball. How about that for passing time in summer!