Sarah Cooperman: Bats are our friends and need our help

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WILLIAMSTOWN — We need bats, but they're not exactly on the top of most people's list of favorite animals. While charismatic species like whales and polar bears enjoy international attention, bats often fly under the radar.

Even in the Berkshires, a community that prides itself on environmental consciousness, bats get a bad rep. The yellow pages abound with bat extermination services. But their bad reputation must change: bats are a key species in our ecosystem and they protect us from serious, sometimes deadly, diseases. Bats deserve our love and protection.

Bats have greatly declined in our Berkshire skies in the past decade. A pathogenic fungus called White-nose syndrome has terrorized our bats. During winter hibernation, the fungus grows on their bodies and wakes them up so they burn through their precious fat reserves and starve to death before spring comes. The largest Massachusetts bat hibernation site is a mine in Chester that was home to about 10,000 bats in 2007. By the next winter, only 14 remained.

Why should we care? Bats provide massive economic and ecological benefits to our environment and protect us from insect-borne diseases. Bats' annual contribution to the U.S. economy as insectivores is estimated to be at least $3 billion. By consuming the insects crawling along our crops, bats provide vital pest control services to farmers. Best of all, a bat's service is free and leaves no toxic residue on our food!

Far from the harbingers of the rabies apocalypse that they are often seen as, bats serve important public health benefits in Massachusetts. There are only one or two cases of rabies in the entire U.S. per year. In contrast, West Nile Virus (WNV) and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) in Massachusetts are both mosquito-borne illnesses that have been far more common and more deadly than rabies ever has been.

Between 2000 and 2010, 67 people were reported with WNV infection in Massachusetts. Twelve people have died from either WNV or EEE since 2000. Bats are perhaps the most important mosquito-controller throughout the muggy summer months. A single little brown bat can eat up to 1,000 mosquitoes per hour. With little brown bats all but decimated in the Berkshires, we are at greater risk for these much more likely and statistically deadlier illnesses.

I propose that Berkshire communities adopt local non-binding resolutions to take a tangible step forward in helping bats flourish again. Modeled after Williamstown's Pollinator Resolution, I suggest this plan adopt the following bat-friendly practices:

1. Build more bat houses, which create alternate homes for bats rather than relying on exterminators to remove bats from properties. High-quality bat boxes will normally range up to $50, but small boxes can be bought for a mere $10.

2. Leave our yards to nature more often because Massachusetts bats roost in trees, both dead and alive.

3. Talk! Beginning a dialogue about bats in our community through public events and education initiatives can help us overcome the negative images of bats.

The Berkshires must strive to recognize and respect the bats struggling to survive here. Adopting a local non-binding resolution is an excellent way to start making our communities bat-friendly and ensure we can reap the benefits that bats provide for future generations to come.

Sarah Cooperman is a senior biology major at Williams College.


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