Wildlife Conservation Biologist Scott Gibson holds a small bat in his hands. He works quickly and seriously, taking a host of scientific measurements.
Holding the animal up, he turns to face the group of people gathered nearby.
“How cute is this bat?” he says, breaking into a wide smile. “Anyone want to touch it?”
This is Bat Night, a yearly event put on by the Southeastern Region of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to connect wildlife scientists and the public.
On August 8, fifteen members of the public joined scientists surveying bat populations above Ken’s Lake near Moab. Biologists string netting across waterways to snare bats, who are untangled, examined, and measured. Visitors get an up-close look at the different bats and, perhaps, new insight into wildlife science.
“This year’s event went great,” says Aaron Bott, conservation outreach manager for the DWR Southeastern Region.
“We ended up having a total of six different bat species identified throughout the evening,” including the Canyon Bat, the Hoary Bat, and the Big Brown Bat.
“Bat Night is always a hit,” Bott says, “but we keep the event small is because we don't want to handle the bats longer than necessary.”
Bat Night begins around sundown and stretches into the early morning hours. Guests bring headlamps to peer at the different bats, getting close enough to touch the animal’s fur.
“If we had a larger crowd and were trying to walk around with bats in hand,” Botts says, “we would defeat the purpose of being as non-intrusive as possible.”
This year’s Bat Night marks the first time one of those bat species has been recorded at that location. “This is a beast of a Hoary Bat,” Gibson says, stretching the bat’s wing out gently for visitors to see.
In addition to answering scientific questions from guests, Gibson adds a touch of humor to his presentations.
Gibson doesn’t blink when irritated bats bite his gloved fingers. His secret?
“Batting gloves!” he says with a grin.
“Wildlife biologists go out throughout our region multiple nights throughout the year,” says Botts.
“They're looking to see what types of bats we have, what the sexes are, and what the activity is like,” he says, “and at certain times, they're looking to see what the health quality of the bats are like.”
“We net early in the year to catch bats when they have just come out of hibernation,” Gibson says, “and we do that for White-nose sampling.”
White-nose Syndrome, a spreading fungus that is deadly to bats, has devastated bat communities across the country. According to the National Park Service, researchers first noted the disease in New York in the winter of 2006. Since then, it has crept westward, spreading to more than half of the United States. The syndrome has killed millions of bats, but not in Utah.
“There has not been any White-nose reported here yet,” says Gibson, though it’s been reported as close as Eastern Wyoming.
After working as a wildlife biologist for almost 20 years, Gibson embraces the chance to talk to the public.
“Over the years, I’ve seen a failure to communicate science to people who are not scientists,” he says.
“I love being able to make that bridge between good science and the general public,” Gibson says, “in a way that is hopefully entertaining.”
As part of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, the DWR manages hunting and fishing opportunities within the state as well as protecting Utah's wildlife.
The DWR hosts other public nights, focusing on both scientific surveys and hunting pursuits like fly fishing and pheasant hunts.
“Similar to Bat Night, we also host a public bird survey for grouse in the springtime,” says Botts, “We also do mule deer and bighorn sheep surveys.”
“When we can involve people in the outdoors and in wildlife research, it really helps boost our work and support these species,” says Botts.
More information on upcoming programs by the Department of Wildlife Resources can be found at www.wildlife.utah.gov