Declining bat population poses problems

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) - It's just another day for bat expert Joel Tigner as he inspects a tall, metal pole pointing straight up to sky. On top of the pole rests a vertical rectangle - a potential roost for bats.

There are no holes on the bat houses. They climb through slits cut in the bottom to enter the two-chambered condo.

"Basically, it's a double walled, wooden structure that sits down over the top of the pole and the pole runs all the way up through the middle of the box to the underside of the roof," Tigner explains. "There are two gaps that run all the way around for the two walls and it's in those gaps that the bats actually roost."

The black stain on the wood, the walls, and the pole all serve the same purpose - help the bats survive Kota Territory weather.

"The metal pole heats up and directs all of that heat to the middle of the house," Tigner said. "The black stain helps the box get as much sun as possible."

Bats are responsible for controlling bug populations - like mosquitoes – which is why the Rapid City Urban Wildlife Committee is taking a vested interest in the mammals’ survival.

“They do just a great job,” said committee chair Jim Good. “I mean they just eat hundreds of hundreds of insects - particularly mosquitoes.”

Last year the committee was introduced to the idea of bat houses – something other communities around the country have already started establishing.

“One of the members wondered if there was anything we could do to come up with bat houses,” Good said, and the rest is history.

The community chipped in to help design, build, and place three bat houses along Rapid Creek.

“The design was made specifically for roosting females and their pups and placed in locations that have a history of populations,” Tigner said.

The boxes were designed at South Dakota State University and assembled by local volunteers.

Good suggested the project had three main goals: create a safe place for bats to roost, encourage them to move away from structures like bridges and roofs, and help control bug populations.

Tigner has been checking the condos since they were put in place, but has not yet seen evidence of any major move ins. He said they were put up too late in the season.

“It’s a qualified yes,” he responds when asked if the project was successful. “The bats had already made their roosts for the season when the houses went up, but over the next few years, we’ll likely see activity.”

However, he makes the caveat that the bats will take the best homes, so if there is a better, warmer location – like a cave – they’ll head for that spot first.

Good said the committee has yet to assess the success of the bat houses but already sees the possibility for additional houses.

More bats may force people to think of dangers typically associated with the animals, like rabies, but Tigner doesn’t think you need to be concerned.

“As many cows as bats have gotten rabies in the last 14 years in South Dakota,” Tigner said. The disease kills them just like any other animal so as long as you don’t touch them, you won’t contract the illness.

Even with additional houses, Tigner believes the local bat population is still in danger.

“Realistically, we are trying to slow the decline,” Tigner said.