FLYING INTO EXTINCTION | Nevada bats may be at risk as a deadly fungus spreads

A scientist examines a bat caught as the colony began to fly for the night. Researchers are looking to see if the bat is in good physical health and if it has been tagged in the past. 10/28/16 (Denise Rosch | KSNV)

Scientists call them critical to our environment. They’re a natural form of pest control, consuming millions of insects every night.

But across the country, bats are now fighting for survival, as a fungus threatens to cut their numbers.

A stroll through downtown Ely, Nevada can feel a little desolate. The town is located off of Highway 50, known as the loneliest road in America. The town embraces the name because they know better.

When the sun goes down in White Pine County, the sky comes to life.

Highway 50 sits along an important migration route for hundreds of thousands of bats.

“They funnel through here from the northeast and west we think. Then they migrate south,” said Jason Williams with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

The bats’ summer home is a cave hidden high in the Ely hills. The cave is also ground zero for bat research in Nevada. Getting there isn’t easy, and once a person makes the hike…

“We're standing right in the out-flight right now, you might get hit,” said Williams.

The payoff for scientists is well worth the climb and the possible bat bumps.

“We're banding them with unique serial numbers on each band on their forearms. And we're looking for recapture data from elsewhere throughout their range,” said Williams.

The group uses what’s known as a harp trap to catch the bats in mid-flight. The bats hit a series of wires on their way out of the cave and fall into a small bag below. Then, each one is inspected before being tagged and set free.

News 3 was there to capture their remarkable flight. We used night vision and infra-red cameras to show just how many bats made the nightly journey.

“Last year we had a lot more males and this year we had a lot more pregnant females. So we're learning a lot, it's really cool,” said Joseph Danielson, a local graduate student.

Just as important is what scientists are not yet seeing in the cave.

White Nose Syndrome is a fungus that attaches to bats during hibernation. In the past 4 years, it’s killed millions of bats in the eastern and central parts of the country. This year, for the first time, the disease was found on the west coast.

“It hasn't been detected in Nevada. It's been detected in Washington state this past April. And so were managing it such that we anticipate finding it this winter,” said Williams.

Until then, data loggers are recording temperature and humidity in over 40 different caves and mines in Nevada. They’re developing climate models to understand the susceptibility of White Nose. Fewer bats in Nevada could mean a whole lot more bugs.

“They're a huge natural pesticide control. They save the agricultural industry billions of dollars every year in pesticide spraying,” said Williams.

During the month of October, a Miami beach Florida commissioner proposed installing bat houses throughout the city in an attempt to cut down the mosquito population and reduce the threat of the Zika virus.

In Nevada, scientists are learning all they can about the often misunderstood night flyers. The bats hang out in Ely from June through October, and while the population is constantly turning over, it is estimated there are several million bats in that one cave alone.

“As far as we know it's one of the largest congregations of any mammal at this latitude in North America,” said Williams.

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