Cave week to focus on bat conservation

For its annual Cave Week, the Virginia Cave Board has decided to center on a topic typically reserved for horror stories: bats.

Virginia Cave Week will get underway from 1-4 p.m. Sunday at the Warren County Community Center in Front Royal with a free program on bat conservation.

Heading up the program will be representatives from the Front Royal Grotto and the Save Lucy Campaign, a group dedicated to raising awareness about bat conservation and health.

The bat discussion will center on white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease that has spread nationwide since it was first discovered in 2006.

“It’s something that’s been going for a number of years now. We started to first see it up in some of the caves in New York,” said Janet Tinkham, president of the Front Royal Grotto and a member of the Virginia Cave Board.

The U.S. Geological Survey describes white-nose syndrome as an “emergent disease of hibernating bats.” This fungal disease causes bats to prematurely burn through their hibernation fat stores more quickly than normal.

As a result of this, some bats wake up too early in the middle of winter and often starve to death with no food source.

“It’s something that has been just really devastating to bat populations,” Tinkham said. The little brown bat, a species common in the eastern U.S. and Virginia, has especially seen its numbers dwindle as a result of the disease.

The USGS has estimated that about 6 million bats nationwide have been killed as a result of the syndrome. Overall populations have declined by an estimated 80 percent since 2006.

Tinkham said the syndrome has even had an adverse effect on the caving population during its sudden and violent introduction.

“For a number of years, cavers like myself just stopped caving because we didn’t want to do anything in addition to the white-nose syndrome that would stress the bats,” she said, “A lot of us stopped caving.”

At the moment, no cure has been developed for white-nose syndrome.

Agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and nonprofit groups like the Save Lucy Campaign are working to research the issue, raise funds for projects and educate the public.

And so, with Sunday’s program, Tinkham and company are looking to raise “awareness of the community and recognizing what we can do individually to help our bats kind of survive through this devastation.”

Aside from public awareness about white-nose, Tinkham said one of the board’s other goals for that week will be to “dispel some of the myths and misinformation about bats.”

To Tinkham, bats are “not these horrible monsters that, unfortunately, get this bum rap, especially around Halloween. They’re adorable.”

In general, bat species play within numerous North American ecosystems, between pollination and reduction of pest insects like mosquitos.

Meredith Hall Weberg, chair of the Virginia Cave Board, also noted the stigma that bats still seem to carry “despite what great press bats have gotten in recent years.”

“There’s some species of bats that are becoming nearly extinct, with the possibility of becoming extinct in our lifetime,” Weberg noted.

“Another thing that we’d would like to get the community involved in is an observation project,” Tinkham said, “We need to get some sense of the numbers [of bats] that are still living, and where they’re living.”

During Sunday’s event, Tinkham said the goal is to “put the information out there and maybe get a list of those who are interested in participating.” In addition, Save Lucy will have a live bat on-hand to show event attendees.

Tinkham added that the event will be “kid friendly” and include facing painting, bat-crafts and “some little giveaway stuff for the kids.”

More on Virginia Cave Week events and educational information can be found at: VaCaveWeek.com.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com