Bat situation

Florence students research presentation on plight of bats threatened by deadly fungus

Betsy Bloom/Daily News Photo KENZI GUMMIN, AN eighth-grader in Florence County Schools, describes the agricultural losses and other negative effects that could result from insects if bats became extinct due to white-nose syndrome, a fungus that is decimating bat populations where it has occurred in North America. Teacher Amy Johnson looks on during the presentation to the Federal Sustainable Forestry Committee on Thursday at the Florence Natural Resources Center. Seventh- and eighth-grade students at the Florence school have been researching the effects of the deadly bat disease and strategies for protecting area species such as the now-threatened northern long-eared bat.

FLORENCE, Wis.– Bats now have entire classes of advocates in the Florence County School District.

The seventh- and eighth-grade students say they learned to appreciate what Earth’s only true flying mammal can do during an 11-week research project that looked at the effects of white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungus decimating bat populations in North America.

Former mines known to harbor bats in Iron Mountain already have been stricken by the disease. It’s thought to have killed millions of bats in the past decade, nearly wiping out entire colonies at some hibernation sites, the students told the Federal Sustainable Forest Committee, which moved its monthly meeting from Crandon, Wis., so they could hear the school’s presentation at the Florence Natural Resources Center.

Not having the bats to keep insects in check — a single bat, the students said, consumes thousands of insects each night — could cost the U.S. an estimated $3.7 billion to $5.3 billion in losses for agriculture and other areas.

The students were tasked not only with educating themselves about bats but providing recommendations on how to protect the most at-risk varieties, such as the northern long-eared bat, while still allowing logging, an economic mainstay for the region.

They told the committee it would be best to keep the bats off the federal Endangered Species List while maintaining enough protection to preserve crucial habitat, such as bat roosting trees, especially during breeding and hibernating seasons.

The states likely can best adjust and decide what might work for the bats, eighth-grader Lacey Enders said.

Committee members praised the presentation. Gary Zimmer of the Wisconsin County Forests Association, who led Wednesday’s meeting, said he was impressed by the depth of knowledge. Though a wildlife biologist, Zimmer said he still learned something new about bats, such as most females bear only a single pup for the year, a slow rate of reproduction that makes any losses more difficult to overcome.

The seven students who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting represented about 40 of their classmates who helped gather and shape the information into not just an oral presentation but about five displays with facts about the bats and their plight, Florence teachers Amy Johnson and Kate Millan said.

The project grew from an initial suggestion the classes build bat houses, said Ben Niehaus, Florence County Schools district administrator and a committee member. Doing the research offered “real world relevance,” considering the white-nose syndrome threat, Niehaus said.

The students later admitted they didn’t have warm and fuzzy feelings for bats when they started the project.

Now, “they’re fascinating,” Kenzi Gummin said, drawing laughter from her classmates who admired her word choice over their offering that bats “are pretty cool,” as Blake McLain put it.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or