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Colorado Climbers Race to Gather Data About Bats Before a Fungal Disease Hits the State

Biologists have little idea where many of Colorado's bats reside. Athletes who brave the state's rock faces are helping to solve that mystery.
A Townsend's big-eared bat.

A Townsend's big-eared bat.

In Colorado, there is a notorious 110-foot climbing route called Chiroptophobia. It's a difficult climb, not so much for its long cracks and bulges, but rather for the bats that sometimes emerge unexpectedly.

Biologists are drawn to this rock face for the same reason that climbers fear it. In the eastern parts of the United States, bats hibernate in groups of hundreds of thousands in abandoned mines and caves. Western bats are more elusive, preferring to live in small groups in diverse locations, such as old barns, cracks and crevices, and fields of scree. Chiroptophobia—which takes its name from the Greek word for "fear of bats"—could be one of the best opportunities that scientists have to study these animals in their natural habitat.

The mysterious whereabouts of these animals wasn't a big deal until recently: Bats weren't endangered or threatened, so it didn't matter that biologists in western states didn't really know where to find them. But in 2006 and 2007, bats covered in a distinctive white fuzz were discovered in a cave in New York State. It was the first known example of white-nose syndrome in North America, a fungal disease that has since spread dramatically across the East Coast and in Canada, killing more than five million bats.

For years, western bat biologists watched in horror as their eastern counterparts struggled to deal with the outbreak, but didn't anticipate that it would be a problem for the populations they were studying. That sense of complacency is fading fast. In May, the fungus that causes white-nose syndrome was discovered in bats in South Dakota and Wyoming. More serious, the state of Kansas announced in April that it had found a bat with the full-blown disease.

This rapid spread of the fungus means that what was once a biological puzzle has rapidly become a conservation emergency. Unless biologists can find out where western bats are roosting—and quickly—they're unlikely to be able to respond when white-nose syndrome hits their local colonies. It's not an easy task because, unlike bats, biologists tend to spend the majority of their time with their feet on the ground.

Rob Schorr is a zoologist at Colorado State University who has studied bats for the last 20 years. In an effort to solve this mystery, and to increase the chances of recognizing white-nose syndrome should it creep into his state, he is reaching out to climbers, who form a community that knows the state's rock faces almost as intimately as the bats do.

"We knew that we were going to struggle to discover population decline in the same way they were able to in the east," Schorr says. "That led me to start conversations with some climbing friends of mine who had mentioned seeing bats when they climb. I thought that was a cool novelty, but as the disease hit, I thought maybe this was a resource for discovering new populations we could monitor."

In 2014, Schorr set up a group called Climbers for Bat Conservation. He wanted to tread carefully: Conservation and recreational sports aren't always easy bedfellows. Climbers "can be suspicious," says Mike Schneiter, a climbing guide in Colorado who is working closely with Schorr to monitor bat populations. When the disease began spreading in the east, cavers bristled at restrictions put in place to prevent further transmission, and climbers are already frustrated at strict closures of climbing routes near peregrine falcon nests.

Schorr was worried that climbers would further suspect him of wanting to close beloved climbing routes in the interest of protecting bats. But the involvement of climbers seemed to offer insights that were too rare to pass up. "I can't think of another climb quite like [Chiroptophobia], where we've found such a huge number of bats," says Schneiter, speaking one day at 7 a.m. from Colorado as he heads for a morning of climbing before the midday heat. That doesn't mean there aren't more such places out there; merely that they haven't found them yet.

Schorr began by reaching out to climbers in gyms, making them aware of the need to monitor bats, and simply asking them to report any sightings. Most were open to the idea, he says. "They know how infrequently they see large numbers of bats, so they didn't think it was a threat," Schorr says. In May, he hired Schneiter to scale Chiroptophobia again and install two cameras to monitor its cracks for bats for a night (an endeavor that, sadly, revealed few insights; Schorr wonders whether the cameras they were using were responsive enough to register the swift movement of a tiny bat). He wants to a develop a website that makes it even easier for climbers to report their bat sightings.

"Eastern states have been able to discover colony decline and discover disease pretty regularly. But western states may have to rely on new informational resources to understand that population, like Climbers for Bat Conservation," Schorr says.

Scientific research into interactions between climbers and bats further suggests that the mammals and athletes have little to fear from one another. In February of 2018, U.S. Forest Service scientist Susan Loeb published the results of her investigation into any possible negative effects that climbers might have on bat roosting sites. She found no evidence to suggest that climbers were disturbing bats. In fact, she discovered that bat activity was higher on cliffs that had climbing routes than on those that did not. She cautioned that, even if further studies should highlight negative impacts, it remains important not to alienate climbers, considering their potential as future collaborators in bat conservation.

In Wyoming, the National Park Service has also discovered the value in using climbers to monitor bat populations. Andrew Lyons-Gould and Phil Knecht, both biologists and skilled climbers, were hired as biological science technicians at Devils Tower to climb the monument and seek out bats, using endoscopic cameras to monitor their movements.

"We knew that white-nose syndrome was eventually going to make it here, so we're just trying to collect as much baseline data as we can before it reaches us," Lyons-Gould says. "We're cautiously optimistic that maybe it won't make the jump, but there's so little research on the disease and how it moves around, and unfortunately it moved around a lot quicker than we thought."

As white-nose syndrome presses in on the western states and biologists scramble to gather all the information they can, these two climbing biologists are mainly keen to highlight that every bat sighting is important, and should be reported to local land managers. With a little education, climbers could be on the frontline of collecting this vital data set.

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.