Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Game Commission: High-Tech Cameras Scary-Effective In Protecting Bats

An alert sounds through a smartphone speaker.  A real-time trail-camera photo has just been sent by text message to a Game Commission wildlife conservation officer. People are trespassing again at an abandoned mine site, perhaps not even realizing any breach into the mine poses a serious and potentially lethal threat to already-beleaguered cave-bat populations there.
With the alert sent, the officer makes it to the mine in time to head off the trespassers.
Soon word spreads that officers seem to making appearances at the mine just about every time someone shows up there. People stop going there.
And, in what are dark days for bats in Pennsylvania and throughout the eastern United States, every bat in the mine has a better chance of surviving because of it.
This is a scenario that has played out – time and again – in Pennsylvania in the past year.
And thanks to generous donations from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Wildlife For Everyone Endowment Foundation, even more of the state’s important bat sites can be given round-the-clock protection through the watchful eyes of these high-tech cameras.
The Trouble with Trespassers
Since 2009, Pennsylvania’s bat populations have been decimated by white-nose syndrome, a condition that causes bats to rouse during hibernation, burning the fat reserves they depend on to make it through winter and, ultimately, killing them.
Some bat species have experienced a 99-percent population decline, said Greg Turner, a bat biologist with the Game Commission who is among those leading research into the disease.
White-nose syndrome is caused by a cold-loving fungus that contaminates the caves and abandoned mines where many bats hibernate and reproduce. At present, all of Pennsylvania’s bat-hibernation sites are presumed to be contaminated with the fungus, Turner said.
Although the disease has had devastating impacts, survivors remain, and continue to hibernate at these infected sites year after year.
Eliminating the chance these survivors are disturbed by people entering caves and mines for recreation could be the difference between life and death for bats, Turner said. Any disturbance that causes bats to rouse decreases their chances of surviving through the winter, he said.
“It doesn’t matter who the person is, or what their motivation is for going into a cave or mine,” Turner said. “All anybody would have to do is walk into one of these caves and talk, or walk into one and shine a light around, and while that type disturbance might seem small, it almost certainly would rouse bats and it might well push them beyond any chance of surviving through the winter.”
Helping Us Help Bats
The Game Commission for years has gone to lengths to keep people out of caves and mines that are important to hibernating bats.
Gates that are friendly to bats but restrict people from entering have been placed at cave entrances. Areas leading to caves have been posted “No Trespassing.” And law-enforcement patrols near cave sites have been stepped up in an effort to catch trespassers.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent.  Yet, intrusions continued, and in some areas, they still do.
More recently, however, a new tool became available to the Game Commission in addressing these continuing problems: Cameras, that not only can capture visual evidence of trespassing crimes at sensitive bat caves, but that send text messages to alert on-duty officers and radio dispatchers an intrusion is taking place.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lent the Game Commission two such cameras and, since January, the cameras resulted in more than 50 contacts between officers and suspected trespassers, and more than 20 citations were issued as a result.
And they also proved helpful in monitoring other illegal activity on state game lands.
Still, more cameras were needed to monitor more protected areas where breaches too frequently occur. There was one problem – at about $1,200 each, the cameras aren’t cheap; and the Game Commission already is operating on a tight budget that would make the purchase of additional cameras impossible.
That’s where the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Wildlife For Everyone Endowment Foundation stepped in, combining to purchase 12 cameras for the Game Commission, with two cameras going to each of the agency’s six regions.
Lora Zimmerman, who supervises the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Pennsylvania Field Office, said the agency was proud to partner in the initiative.
“As we continue to look for solutions to white-nose syndrome, it is essential that we minimize other threats – especially protecting hibernacula, where bats congregate in large numbers,” Zimmerman said. “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is grateful for the Game Commission's initiative and commitment to protecting these important species and their habitat.”
Vern Ross, the executive director of the Wildlife For Everyone Endowment Foundation, said stepping in to help purchase the cameras fits with the nonprofit’s mission to preserve all wildlife for all Pennsylvanians.
“Wildlife For Everyone proudly supports the Pennsylvania Game Commission and this particular endeavor without any hesitation,” Ross said. “Whenever a species is threatened, it is our responsibility as an organization and wildlife enthusiasts to protect those valuable creatures and their habitats.”
David J. Putnam, president of the Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners, said people have gone to extraordinary lengths to breach sites that have been fortified to protect bats. They have broken through locked gates, tunneled around them, cut through fences and ignored numerous signs instructing them to keep out of caves and mines.
The cameras work to address all of these problems, Putnam said, and increase the chances of survival for hibernating bats and their young. Most white-nose syndrome mortality occurs during hibernation, and disturbances can lead to higher mortality.
“We have had reports for years of people trespassing at these sites, even ones with federally listed endangered bats in them, but those people have been difficult to catch,” Putnam said. “Now we have the advantage.
“This aggressive, statewide law-enforcement effort is the first of its kind, and will protect bats where they are most vulnerable,” Putnam said. “And by doing everything we can to protect bats at all times of year, we maximize their chances for recovery.”
Word About Pictures Spreads
In northeastern Pennsylvania, through an opening in a rocky slope that leads into an old coal mine, is one of Pennsylvania’s most important sites for hibernating bats.
Just seven years ago, upward of 75,000 bats would winter there. Six different species, including the federally endangered Indiana bat and the federally threatened northern long-eared bat were documented there.
Since the onset of white-nose syndrome, however, winter totals at the site have dropped to about 1,500.
Turner said it’s important to note, though, while fewer bats are hibernating at the site, survivors do continue to return there year after year.
“And we must do whatever we can to protect them, and their young,” he said.
At this mine alone, officers issued 24 citations for trespassing and other illegal activity, said Mark Rutkowski, law-enforcement supervisor for the Game Commission’s Northeast Region. And if the trespassing took place during the months bats were hibernating there, citations were issued not only for ignoring no-entry signs, but for disturbance of wildlife.
In more than a few cases, the judge enacted a maximum fine of $1,500 against those who were charged, Rutkowski said.
And as more arrests were made, activity near the mine site began to drop sharply, he said. In recent months there’s been nary a text. People took notice.
“With texts being sent from the cameras, we were getting there quickly, and even those few times we weren’t there quite quick enough to catch trespassers in the act, we had enough evidence to launch investigations into the incidents,” Rutkowski said. “We’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the number of incidents since we began our camera-aided enforcement.
“In fact, it’s been awhile since any of our officers in the region have gotten one of those texts from the cameras,” Rutkowski said. “But the next time they do, they’ll certainly be ready to respond.”
Enforcing Broadly
With the eight cameras donated by the Wildlife For Everyone Endowment Foundation, and the additional four donated by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, important bat sites statewide can be monitored in the same manner, and trespassing problems erased, said R. Matthew Hough, executive director for the Game Commission.
The biggest benefit will be experienced by the state’s bats, and the millions of Pennsylvanians, some of whom might not even realize all of what bats provide in controlling mosquitoes and other insects.
“We truly are grateful to the Wildlife For Everyone Endowment Foundation and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for their generous donations,” Hough said. “Without their help, we couldn’t afford such a purchase during paper-thin budget years like this one. So to each of you, thank you.
“These cameras have proven effective in stopping intrusions at important bat sites at a time when our bats need all the help they can get,” Hough said. “And I am proud we have partners not only who recognize that fact, but who step up to do something about it and make a tangible difference. You exemplify what conservation partnerships are all about.”
For more information, visit the Game Commission’s Pennsylvania Bats and White-Nose Syndrome webpages.

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