ST. ANTHONY — As the sun started to set on the Sand Creek Wildlife Management Area on Thursday night, it looked ideal for catching bats as part of eastern Idaho’s first “bat blitz.”
Biologists and volunteers had mist nets set up on three ponds in the Sand Creek area, the sky was clear, the wind was subdued and insects were swarming through the air.
Then a large storm cloud started to roll in over the hills to the west, followed by a series of lightning strikes.
“I hate weather,” said Becky Abel, regional wildlife biologist for Idaho Department of Fish and Game, as the rain began to fall.
Abel was coordinator of the bat blitz, and the August rains were a thorn in her side. The event originally was planned the week before, but canceled due to rain. Thursday’s forecast looked ideal, but the unpredictable weather caught biologists off guard.
The goal was to catch bats to get a better idea of what species are in the area. Abel said she expected to catch little brown myotis bats, big brown bats, hoary bats and silver-haired bats.
The bat blitz was a collaborative effort between Idaho Fish and Game and Bureau of Land Management, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and some non-government organizations.
“The reason why we try and get a bunch of people together for this is to raise awareness about bat conservation,” Abel said. “Also, we can get a lot more data with a bunch of people working together in a big area like this than one biologist can do in a normal session.”
Abel said there is little data on bats in the area, and although the bat blitz would fill a lot of gaps in the data, it is only so effective.
“It’s difficult,” she said. “These little guys are flying around in pitch blackness, and you can’t hear them, and you can’t see them. When you’re mist-netting like this, you are really only capturing a few of the bats at any given moment.”
Abel had around 25 people working to put up two to three mist nets in three locations. The nets are large mesh sheets suspended over the water by poles. The nets have little shelves to capture the bats as they fly through.
Some of the 25 workers included master naturalists, a certification for volunteers looking to help with environmental efforts.
Dennis Smith, 68, became a master naturalist as a way to stay busy after retirement. This was his first time working on a bat project and he was excited at the prospect of catching a glimpse of the world’s only flying mammal.
“I just want to see them up close,” he said.
At 8:20 p.m., Fish and Game Regional Wildlife Biologist Rob Cavallaro was about to open his net, but was having issues with it catching on his clothing.
“They’re very sticky,” he said.
As the sun dipped down, Abel was standing at one of the net locations, looking with dismay at the lightning striking in the distance.
“This is about it for tonight,” she said. “The wind is picking up.”
Cavallaro’s area was more protected from trees and shrubs than the other locations, and Abel said it was the best area for catching a bat. When Cavallaro pulled out a bat sonar detector and pointed it up in the air, he started to get several readings of bats flying overhead, giving the group hope.
Martha Wackenhut, a wildlife biologist for Fish and Game, was a designated bat handler because she had been vaccinated for rabies, as well as her extensive experience working with bats.
“If we get one, I’ll go wrestle it,” she said.
At about 9:15 p.m., the lightning strikes picked up, followed by a heavy douse of rain. Biologists grabbed their gear to stash in nearby trucks and threw on rain jackets. The outcome looked pretty grim.
However, the weather passed and at about 10:00 p.m., the nets were opened. The group caught 15 little brown myotis bats, some juveniles and some adults.
“Given that nasty weather we had, we still had some success, so that’s good,” Abel said.
Going forward, Abel said some smaller surveys are in the works. She hopes to conduct more bat blitzes starting in the spring, but is waiting to hear back about a grant application she sent to the BLM that would cover equipment and technicians.
Reporter Aubrey Wieber can be reached at 542-6755.