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Homeowners asked to avoid evictions
The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is asking homeowners to stop shrieking at the bats flying around their attics. In fact, the department says those bats should be allowed to move in, if only for the summer.
The state's population of the once-common little brown bat has been almost entirely wiped out by a fungal disease called white nose syndrome, state wildlife biologist Emily Brunkhurst said. According to Brunkhurst, the number of little brown bats in New Hampshire has declined 99 percent in just two years.
As a result of the disease, the Fish and Game Department issued a new rule this spring that prohibits licensed wildlife control operators from removing bats from unoccupied structures, like barns, from May 15 to Aug. 15, unless a rabid bat is found on the property.
The rule is designed to protect baby bats, or "pups," as they prepare to face winter hibernation in caves that may be infected with the fungus, Brunkhurst said. While the rule does not formally include occupied buildings like homes, she encouraged people to let the bats live peacefully in their attics until the pups are able to fly in mid-August.
"Every single baby bat that's born every single year becomes very important," Brunkhurst said. "You've given the pups the chance to grow, given them the best chance they have of surviving."
Jesse Fraser, operator of Critter Control of New Hampshire in Merrimack, said he hopes to see the rule become law in the future. Even without the rule, he said most wildlife control operators avoid exclusions when bat pups are present.
"Otherwise we'd exclude moms," he said. "There'd be babies inside that would die."
Fraser has noticed smaller bat colonies and fewer calls related to bats inside customer's homes.
"I do associate some of that to white nose syndrome," he said. "We're seeing more bats inside houses in the wintertime. . . . I don't know if the bats are learning not to go back to those colonies (where there is white nose syndrome)."
The fungus that causes white nose syndrome first appeared in upstate New York about six years ago, Brunkhurst said. Biologists began to notice white fuzz on the muzzles and wings of hibernating bats, and soon huge numbers of bats were not surviving the winter. Researchers discovered the fungus grows in cold, damp places like caves and mines, also a perfect winter habitat for bats.
"How this fungus works on the bats, it grows on their skin and then into their skin," Brunkhurst said. "This fungus actually penetrates the tissues underneath (the wings)."
When the fungus eats into bats' wings, the animals wake up during hibernation more often and use precious stores of energy. Until researchers develop a successful treatment for the disease, Brunkhurst said good shelter in the summer will be the bats' best hope for survival in the upcoming winter.
"It is devastating," Brunkhurst said. "When we've got a situation where these animals are eating vast amounts of insects every single night, and we're losing them at this tremendous rate, we know there is going to be some sort of ecological effect."
This summer, two female bats are living in Peter Youngbaer's barn in Vermont. He plans to build a bat house this summer, in hopes that the bats will keep returning to eat the insects and pests that terrorize his garden.
"You don't want to exclude them right now because the bats have been born and the mothers are nursing," Youngbaer said. "In a few weeks, they'll be flying. . . . If we can let people know that a little bat poop, which is really tiny, isn't really going to bother you right now, we can all live together nicely."
Youngbaer, an active caver, has served as a "white nose syndrome liaison" for the National Speleological Society since 2008. He helps educate its members on how to prevent the spread of the fungus, and even testified before Congress twice about how white nose syndrome is a growing problem.
"We're telling cavers, don't go into caves where there are hibernating bats," Youngbaer said. "Those surviving bats who are in there need to be left alone."
Youngbaer also instructs cavers in how to clean and disinfect their equipment, which he said reduces the risk of transporting the fungus from cave to cave.
"Yeah, bats have a bad rep," Youngbaer said. "They're considered creatures of the night and Halloween and Dracula and all that, but they're really cool critters. They're helpful and interesting animals, and they're suffering right now, so we need to do what we can to help those who are surviving make it."
Bob Noviello, owner of Suburban Wildlife Control LLC in Windham, said homeowners with bats and their offspring in their attics should take certain precautions if they do choose to let the bats stay. He advised parents to put a bug net around a young child's crib just in case the bats fly into the house at night.
If a bat does enter a living area in the house, Noviello said the homeowner should open two windows so the bat could catch a cross-breeze and fly outside.
"If they're going to play Batman and capture the animal, which I never recommend, they should wear leather gloves and get a butterfly net to try and scoop them out that way," Noviello said.
Malin Clyde, wildlife program education coordinator at the University of New Hampshire, is also trying to teach homeowners about white nose syndrome. She partnered with Brunkhurst to write an educational presentation about bats and the disease.
"People are really curious about (white nose syndrome)," Clyde said. "It's been in the news a lot, so they show up at the programs and get lots of questions."
About 90 volunteers talk to groups at libraries, town meetings and other local organizations about how to accommodate bats in a barn or an attic.
"I think landowners in New Hampshire really, really like wildlife and appreciate it in general," she said. "If they can understand the issue, I think for the most part I would suspect that landowners would be willing to do what they can to help. That's certainly been our experience."
Credits: By Megan Doyle - Concordmonitor.com