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North Carolina officials approve conservation plan for an endangered bat with big ears

A Virginia big-eared bat in flight against a black background. The bat's mouth is open
Michael Durham
Courtesy of North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
The Virginia big-eared bat in North Carolina is primarily found in two counties, with only an estimated 600-800 individuals in the state. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission approved a conservation plan in April to help protect these endangered bats.

An endangered bat in North Carolina has a new conservation plan in place. The state's Wildlife Resources Commission approved the plan in April to help protect the Virginia big-eared bat.

True to their name, these medium-sized bats have one-inch ears that stand out against their approximately four-inch bodies. State wildlife biologist Katherine Etchison said the bats keep insect populations in check, eating up to 90% of their diet in moths each night — including the invasive spongy moth known to harm forest health.

A Virginia big-eared bat hangs upside-down. Its large ears are prominently displayed in the image.
Craig Stihler
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
True to their name, Virginia big-eared bats have 1-inch ears that stand out against their approximately 4-inch bodies.

According to Etchison, these bats primarily occur in just two western counties in North Carolina: Avery and Watauga.

“We probably have less than 1,000 individuals,” Etchison said, estimating that the state’s Virginia big-eared bat population is between 600-800. “That's not very big, either, if you think about this population that's pretty isolated from other populations of the same species. So, one catastrophic event could really have a terribly devastating effect on that population.”

Etchison said that human disturbances are the cave-dwelling bats' biggest threat. In Etchison’s experience, biologists take care to be as quiet as possible when surveying the sensitive bats, but even a person’s body heat is enough to raise the temperature of a space to the point of waking bats from hibernation.

Additionally, vandalism, parties or campfires in caves can disturb the bats, Etchison said, with biologists sometimes installing protective gates at cave entrances to limit human disturbances.

“They will just abandon a cave entirely if the human disturbance gets to a threshold they can't tolerate anymore,” Etchison said. “They'll abandon their pups in the summertime, too, if that human disturbance is too great. There's often not a replacement cave for them to just move right into, and so that was the real driver of population declines for this species.”

Since 2013, biologists in North Carolina have been able to monitor both a hibernation site and a maternity site for the bats. Such monitoring has shown that this endangered bat population appears to be stable, if not slightly increasing, according to Etchison.

The Wildlife Resources Commission’s approved conservation plan for the bats then establishes what Etchison described as a "one-stop shop" for information on the animals, detailing the history of the bats in the state, past monitoring methods, and future conservation goals.

Those future goals could include working more with and providing property tax deferments to landowners, who have bat-inhabited caves on their property. Or, if more partnerships and funding are acquired, Etchison said that biologists would like to locate a yet-to-be-discovered cave where they suspect some of the bats may hibernate during the winter. Locating this additional cave would allow biologists to develop a more complete picture of the overall population in NC and ensure there are no human disturbances.

For residents in Avery and Watauga counties, Etchison recommended occasionally checking barns, sheds, or other outbuildings for potential Virginia big-eared bats and contacting NC Wildlife to report sightings.

Additionally, Etchison listed more general ways that people can help bats. She encouraged planting native plants to attract native insects for bats to feed on and turning off lights at night, as many rare bats prefer to forge in dark areas.

Sophie Mallinson joined WUNC as a daily news intern in summer 2023. She since has worked as a reporter for the daily news team, largely focusing on environmental stories.
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