Cape Breton group needs funding to track declining bat population

The little brown bat is still in big trouble in Cape Breton and a non-profit community group that tracks the flying mammals says it doesn't yet have the funding in place to do this year's survey.

"We're not giving up yet," said Sarah Penney, project co-ordinator with the Atlantic Coastal Action Program and the lead on the bat survey project. She hopes funding will come through by June when the count starts. 

The bare minimum to run the program at two sites between June and November is $5,500. Additional funding would mean a longer monitoring season at more sites. 

ACAP's most recent survey shows populations are continuing to decline on the island because of white-nose syndrome.

Since 2013, bat activity has declined in Cape Breton by as much as 95 per cent.

What is white-nose syndrome?

White-nose syndrome is a fatal infection caused by a fungus that causes bats to wake frequently during winter hibernation. With limited food available, the bats die from starvation and hypothermia. The infection was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006, and surfaced in Canada in 2010.

Penney said her group starting counting bats in 2013 around the same time the provincial Department of Natural Resources found a 95 per cent decrease in the population of bats at five mainland hibernation sites. 

"I think in 2013 we were still clinging to this shred of hope that Cape Breton might just be different, maybe our hibernation sites are different or we're far enough from other land masses that we'd be OK," she told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton.

"But as of 2014 I think that we had accepted that we were going to see the same kind of decline as other places — this 90 to 99 per cent — and that's the direction we seem to be headed in." 

Acoustic monitoring helps track bats

Infected bats are identified by fuzzy white patches of fungus near the animals' noses and mouths. The fungus can also be found on the wings.

Penney said the bat counts are conducted using acoustic monitoring — putting a microphone in trees in habitats where the bats are commonly found. 

"That will pick up their calls as they fly and hunt. From that we can't get an exact number of bats that are flying around in the sky but we can get a sense of the general level of activity."

A more exact count is done by going to known roosting locations such as caves and counting the number of bats that exit the location as they head out to hunt for insects at dusk. 

Penney said there has been a steady decline since 2013. 

In 2014, the biggest bat colony located in Sydney Forks had almost 300 bats and "last summer there were just none." 

"None in the first count, none in the second count, not even a peep." 

Promising developments for a cure

Penney said there are some promising developments to treat the deadly condition — for instance, using UV radiation or mycoviruses to attack the fungus. 

She said it's not clear when treatments will be more widely available or whether they would eradicate the infection. 

"It is tricky to work in, first of all, cave ecosystems and on tiny, elusive creatures like bats, but my fingers are crossed."

Penney said despite the low numbers, there's still hope for bats in Nova Scotia.

"The population isn't zero yet," she said.

"As long as there's still some little brown bats around I guess there's hope."

People interested in donating to the bat monitoring project can do so online or in person at ACAP's office on George Street in Sydney. The money used to come from federal funding, but "bats fell through the cracks of the available funding last year," Penney said.

ACAP has some money from a private foundation for the project, but it's a fraction of what they usually work with.