First Nations to study shrinking bat populations in northeast

·5 min read

Two First Nations communities in the Sudbury region have launched studies into local bat populations with the goal of preserving and protecting species’ that are most at risk.

Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation and Wahnapitae First Nation have received federal funding to support projects that seek to document and understand bat habitats on their respective territories.

Through field investigations, acoustic monitoring, and community outreach initiatives, both communities hope to promote bat conservation and look for solutions that address the decline of bat populations in Ontario.

“Bats are great pollinators, they help with seed dispersal, and certain bat species can eat between 30 to 50 per cent of their body weight in one feeding, which means they help control insect populations,” said Anthony Laforge, lands director at Wahnapitae First Nation.

“Through this project, we want to get a better understanding of what is out there. If we have a critical habitat in our area, we can map it and add it into our community land-use plan. We also hope to have some sort of ecological land classification and habitat assessment to help with future development.”

Wahnapitae First Nation will receive $52,205 over two years through the Aboriginal Species at Risk program to investigate local bat populations.

In particular, Laforge and his team plan to focus on four different bat species: Little Brown Myotis, Northern Myotis, Eastern Small-footed Myotis, and Tri-colored Bats.

“These bats were listed as endangered on Schedule I of the federal Species at Risk Act in 2014,” said Laforge.

“They were put on that list due to the rapid decline of bats as a direct result of something called White-nose Syndrome, which is a fungus that grows on hibernating bats. The fungus disturbs their hibernation, causes dehydration and starvation, and ultimately, kills them. It’s been around North America since about 2007 when they first noticed it.”

Since the disease was first discovered, it is estimated that it has killed millions of bats across the United States and Canada.

The disease is named for the distinct white fungus that can be seen growing on the skin of the muzzles, ears, and wings of a bat.

“The fungus thrives in cold and humid environments like caves and mines where bats like to hibernate,” said Thomas Assinewe, natural resources coordinator at Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation.

“That’s what’s causing the rapid decline of the bat populations. We are hoping that with additional data and studies, maybe we can find a solution to it.”

Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation is in its second year of studying bat populations on its territory. The community just received $30,000 through the Aboriginal Species at Risk program to expand their area of study.

“Last year, we did a bat capture night to determine which bat species we presently have on the First Nation, and we captured the Eastern Red Bat, the Silver-haired Bat, and the Little Brown Myotis,” said Assinewe.

“This year, we are going to use the funding available to place the acoustic monitors in different locations to expand our ground-based tracking. Last year, we focused more on the northern and interior of the First Nation. This year, we are looking at the southern portion to see the range of the habitat.”

The First Nation is taking a hands-off approach to studying bat populations during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect bat and human populations alike.

“We are leaving bat capture alone for now, but in the future, we want to track the bats, see what their ranges are, and see if populations are increasing, decreasing or stable,” said Assinewe.

“We’re hoping to use radio transmitters on some of the bats and figure out their habitat, the type of species, the sex, the ages, their reproductive condition, their weight, etc. We hope to collect as much data as we can and track them yearly.”

Atikameksheng Anishnawbek is also concerned about White-nose Syndrome in local bat populations and is planning community outreach initiatives to increase local awareness about bat conservation.

“As part of our forest management plan, we have a species at risk section. We are currently developing a species at risk management plan, which is still in the preliminary stages, but right now, we are just getting our baseline studies completed and then continuing with that,” said Assinewe.

“The bats are just one species at risk that we know of on the First Nation.”

The First Nation has also secured funding from additional sources to investigate species like the Blanding’s turtle and the snapping turtle.

According to one study, intentional killing by humans was one of the biggest factors in bat mortality prior to the year 2000.

In the last 20 years, disease, collision with wind turbines, and environmental factors like storms, flooding and drought have been the leading causes of mortality in bats.

Environmental factors are expected to increase with climate change in the future, something that Laforge acknowledged when discussing the goals of Wahnapitae First Nation’s project.

“Once we investigate the bat populations and understand them, it also helps us address any potential climate change issues. We want to see the effects of climate change on our ecosystem here,” he said.

“We hope to move forward with this research, and ultimately, begin to create more awareness about climate change.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

Twitter: @SudburyStar

Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star