The Story: Devastated bat population means more pests in Beaver County

By Evan Witek and Amanda King
Beaver County Times

Posted: Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Harlansburg Cave in Lawrence County is the longest cave in Pennsylvania. Each winter, it was home to a large population of hibernating bats.
A few years ago, the number of bats that made the cave their winter home began declining. The culprit? A disease called White Nose Syndrome is likely what killed most of these insect-eating mammals.

Kim Metzgar, said the Scott Township cave is just one of many across the state affected by the spreading disease.

“At this stage pretty much every cave in Pennsylvania that has had large populations of hibernating bats has been struck by White Nose Syndrome,” said Metzgar, chairwoman of the Mid-Atlantic Karst Conservancy, which manages the cave. “Harlansburg Cave is no exception.”

The Pennsylvania Game Commission says the disease was first documented nearly seven years ago in 2006 in New York, but the syndrome didn’t surface in Pennsylvania until 2008. It started killing off cave bats one year later.

Environmental mystery
WNS gets its name from the white fungus which develops on the tip of the bat’s nose. The fungus is an indicator of the disease, but it is not clear if the fungus is the reason for the deaths, said Matt Kramer, the game commission’s wildlife conservation officer who covers Beaver County.

Why you should care

The syndrome changes a bat’s behavioral pattern, causing them to wake from hibernation and leave the safety of their caves or mines in the winter, when there is no food available.

And without food, the bats die.

“It will actually affect tissues in their wings and it will cause their core temperature to go up,” Kramer said.

There are consequences for humans when a region’s bat populations decline, and those consequences are most apparent in the summer months.

“If we lose our bats, we are going to have an increase in our mosquito population, and coming into the summer months no picnicker or camper wants to have more mosquitoes,” Kramer said.

Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium Curator of Reptiles & Kids Kingdom Henry Kacprzyk said bats are a major pest killer. A pregnant female bat eats 60 percent of her body weight in insects each night.

“We should care about them because they do things like … keep the population of pests down,” Kacprzyk said.

Expanding every year

He said without bats, humans would have to pick up the slack by producing more pesticides to kill off pests from agricultural crops.“Bats provide (a) service in Pennsylvania,” Kacprzyk said. “We have an economy that has quite a bit of an agriculture base, so these animals eat so many of the plant pests that would affect the crops.”

Kacprzyk, who’s worked at the zoo for nearly 35 years, said producing more pesticides creates a higher demand for oil; that ultimately means more energy consumption, very much a human problem.

“It’s (bats consuming pests) an organic natural way of reducing pests for crops,” Kacprzyk said.

Populations of bats in Lawrence County have already been devastated by the syndrome, Kramer said.

“We have (an area) ordinarily where bats hibernate north of here that has seen (an) excessive amount of mortality in that particular group of bats,” Kramer said. “We are talking about 95 percent in loss of bats.”

Kramer added that he expects to see a noticeable drop in the Beaver County population as well, especially in areas like Bridgewater Crossing park, where the Beaver and Ohio rivers meet.

“In the evenings especially we would see hundreds of bats in this area that would be feeding on insects, and we are not seeing them,” Kramer said. “We are at the beginning of summer and as the temperature increases we are going to see more insects.”

The game commission and 11 other states are working together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through a state wildlife grant of $1.37 million to fund research — mapping occurrences of the syndrome — and heighten awareness of WNS. The commission also has encouraged private landowners with caves to close entry to those sites, to prevent the possible spread of the syndrome.

“We are keeping our fingers crossed that we are going to see more bats, but with the effect of White Nose Syndrome, I don’t know if that’s going to be the case,” Kramer said.

In just six years, the disease has not only spread through the Northeast, but there are more cases being confirmed in areas ranging from Canada and to South Carolina.

White Nose Syndrome Occurrence

“It’s estimated that over about 6 million bats have died from White Nose Syndrome in that short span of time,” Kacprzyk said.
The Pittsburgh zoo’s closed colony of 1,200 bats hasn’t been affected by the syndrome, but that hasn’t stopped Kacprzyk from educating the public on the syndrome. The zoo offers workshops for local teachers, and Kacprzyk hopes the message will ultimately get passed down in the classroom.

“We do focus on topics like that hoping they bring it back to their classroom in a format the children will understand,” Kacprzyk.
Kacprzyk said WNS has affected nine species of bats.

“Seven of those are found in Pennsylvania,” Kacprzyk said. “Three were already listed as endangered species.”

Bat business interrupted

The impact of the syndrome doesn’t stop at the bats’ consumption of insects. The owners of private caves are closing them to the public to help preserve their bat populations.

Fayette County’s Laurel Caverns, both the largest cave and the largest bat habitat in the state, closed its doors to groups like Pittsburgh’s Venture Outdoors and Boy Scout troops.

Millions and millions dead

“Laurel Caverns chose to not have their caves open due to White Nose Syndrome about three years ago,” Venture Outdoors Program Director Lora Woodward said.
Venture Outdoors stopped offering its caving program in 2013 due to funding, but when it offered caving a few years back, the group’s caving season was cut short when the caverns decided to shut down activity from the end of November to the middle of April.

“It’s affected every cave in the state of Pennsylvania,” said David Cale, the owner of Laurel Caverns.

Cale said the caverns used to be open from November through March, but he said they are engaging in special protection to avoid spreading the syndrome.

He said he’s lost a lot of money — he wouldn’t say how much — turning away groups like Venture Outdoors and Boy Scout troops. He added that the issue isn’t the money — it’s about the bats.

“We have the responsibility,” Cale said. “We personally have taken the stance that the little brown bat is an endangered species (and) we treat them like that here.”
From a business aspect, Cale said people just don’t understand his decision. He points to the fact that the cavern has lost nearly all of a population that used to number 25,000 bats.

“I know that sounds crazy. People say ‘You’ve got hundreds of people you’ve turned away,’” Cale said. “People wonder why we close down for 20-30 bats, but that’s what we do.”

Harlansburg Cave is open — and free — to cavers, Metzgar said, but a recent closure of the cave appears to have caused a declining interest.

“I think caving groups have been impacted, but merely because outdoors people tend to have more than one interest, such as kayaking, or hiking, or photography, in addition to caving,” said Metzgar, who added that the cave was closed for one year from 2007 to 2008 to preserve its bat population. “So then when the caves were closed they moved on to those other activities and they might not have gone back to caving, or they lost interest in caving.”

Racing to help

The cause of the syndrome is still a mystery, but Kacprzyk said humans can help stop its spread.

“We are trying to understand it,” Kacprzyk said. “We know we have to be careful when caving to decontaminate (to avoid spreading the fungus between different caves).”

Metzgar said the conservancy is protecting and preserving the bats remaining in the Harlansburg Cave, as well as conducting map studies.
Ellwood City resident Rob Prowel, a Pennsylvania Game Commission volunteer and a member of the National Speleological Society, has conducted site surveys at many caves, including a limestone mine in Lawrence County. He said he’s seen many bat skeletons on the ground as he helps to gather data.

“It’s been spreading like wildfire,” Prowel said.

Prowel is also a member of the Beaver County Outdoors Adventurers, and while the group does not cave, he caves with other groups — but not so much anymore.

“We aren’t making as many trips,” Prowel said. “A lot of places are closed due to this.”

“Hopefully they will start coming back,” Cale said.

Anyone who observes bats near the opening of caves in February, March or April should contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Southwest Regional Office at (724) 238-9523. For more information about White Nose Syndrome, visit the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s website at