A former workshop participant makes a difference for bats in California...
The rugged peaks of Pinnacles National Monument rise out of the Gabilan Mountains of central California. This park encompasses 24,000 acres of canyons, crevices and winding underground passages and is home to at least 14 species of bats. These spectacular natural features also lure 225,000 hikers, cavers and rock climbers each year. For wildlife biologist Amy Fesnock, the challenge is to balance the needs of wildlife with those of visitors who share her passion for the outdoors.
Fesnock was first drawn to bats when, as a new park biologist, she and her husband discovered a bat roosting in their home. At dusk, they covered the bat with a plastic bowl and slowly slipped a piece of cardboard between the wall and the container. “We took it outside, lifted the cardboard, and the bat crawled onto the edge, then silently flew off,” said Fesnock. “We were mesmerized by its gentleness.”
After that first encounter, Fesnock hired a graduate student, Sue Smith, from California’s Humboldt State University, to conduct the park’s first bat inventory. “During the summer of 1997, we used mist netting, echolocation recordings and building surveys to find the bats,” said Fesnock. “We eventually identified 14 species, but we believe there are two more.” One of their major discoveries was a maternity colony of Townsend’s big eared bats a (Corynorhinus townsendii) in Bear Gulch Caves--the park’s most popular attraction.
Based on Smith’s recommendations, the cave was closed that summer during the maternity season. Fesnock noted that they received public cooperation in part because the Balconies Caves, which did not house bats, continued to be open for visitation. “We expected bats to leave in the fall, but they didn’t,” continued Fesnock. “They stayed all winter.” While warm air circulates through the cave in summer, cold air collects during the winter, and bats use the cave for hibernation. The park service was uncomfortable keeping the cave closed after the maternity season, so at that time, visitors were allowed inside.
Following the first year of closure, the population jumped dramatically from 150 to 300 bats. As Fesnock searched for additional information to guide the park’s cave management decisions, Smith introduced Fesnock to BCI. “In 1998, I attended BCI’s Bat Conservation and Management Workshop and it was a wonderful experience,” said Fesnock. “I learned more in a week than I ever thought possible. As a land manager, I came with very specific questions and BCI gave me the guidance I needed to help the bats at Pinnacle. Other students were there for a general introduction to bats and I thought it was great to see such a variety of people with very different backgrounds come together to learn about a group of species that continues to be misunderstood.”
Attending the workshop helped Fesnock appreciate the importance of hibernation caves and the bats’ limited energy reserves that must last through the cold winter months. “BCI’s staff helped me explain my concerns to our management team, which allowed us to close the cave for a three-year study period. We’re now at the end of that period, and in January, we’ll begin meeting with our local communities to discuss future plans for the cave.”
Rather than approaching the meetings with a rigid agenda, Fesnock has chosen to present educational programs about the cave and its bats. She is working to bridge the gap between those who want the caves open year-round and those who want to close the caves forever. “The public will help us decide what the timing will be for cave visitation,” said Fesnock. “After the initial population jump, this colony has continued to grow slowly and steadily, and the cave now houses about 340 bats. We’re aware of how sensitive they are to disturbance, but as a land management agency, we want to meet the public’s needs while protecting the bats. It’s a delicate thing.”
Fesnock’s ongoing educational efforts have already made her community more bat-friendly. She has given slide programs at museums and libraries in surrounding cities and has presented campfire programs for park visitors. One of her most popular programs has been a bat-watching hike to Bear Gulch Reservoir. “Among many of our visitors, there’s still this perception that bats are something to be afraid of,” said Fesnock. “It’s wonderful to sit with them on the dam and see their amazement the first time they watch a bat come down to drink.”
Fesnock believes that “science isn’t worth anything unless it gets out to the public,” and her goal is to bring bats and the public together using scientific research. “At first, I didn’t think that as one person, I could have much impact on bat conservation,” said Fesnock. “But if you have a passion for bats, and you talk to just a handful of people, your efforts will ripple through and make a difference.”