A bat resting in a cave.  (MT FWP)

Nature’s very best bug zappers

Bat myths are many, the realities far different

WHITEHALL - What’s the first thing you think about when you hear the word bat? A thing you hit a baseball with, maybe what the Brits use to play cricket?

How about that strange critter of twilight that flits, swooping, around the house? 

Quick run inside, nobody likes bats. For some people, bats evoke fear – fear of rabies, of getting into hair, of vampirism,  of evil. For others, bats are a natural wonder, a creature that has many benefits.

The folks at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and Bat Conservation International (BCI) are pushing that last idea, hoping to overcome the largely irrational fears people hold towards bats.

Throughout this week, Lewis & Clark State Park, in Whitehall, has been hosting its 8th annual “Bat Week,” hosting programs designed to help people learn more about bats. (See sidebar for dates and times.)

FWP and BCI says bats are among the Earth’s most misunderstood creatures; and are wonderfully beneficial mammals that provide invaluable services to both natural ecosystems and human economies the world over, but they are a hard sell. “Even conservationists looked at me like: ‘Sure, next you’ll try to sell us on the virtues of rattlesnakes and cockroaches,’” said Merlin Tuttle about founding BCI in 1982.

FWP says bats and humans can live near each other in harmony: A bat flying in your back yard should be a welcome sight, not cause for alarm, and that bats don’t deserve the bad reputation they’ve inherited from scary movies and myths.

“Bats are passive, shy mammals and prefer to avoid contact with humans,” FWP’s bat information notes. “They are extremely valuable in controlling insect pests. A single little brown bat can consume 1,200 mosquitoes in one hour. Bats save us billions of dollars annually by consuming agricultural insect pests such as moths, cucumber beetles, corn earworms, and grasshoppers.”


Bat myths

One way to learn more about bats it to shatter the myths surrounding them.

• “All bats are rabid.” Not even close, says BCI and FWP. Bats, like other mammals, can be infected with the rabies virus. Some – less than 1 percent – have rabies. The vast majority are not infected. Still, both FWP and BCI note,  a bat easily approached by humans is likely to be sick and may bite if handled. Don’t touch or handle bats – just like you wouldn’t handle a skunk or raccoon – and teach kids never handle any wild animal. 

• “Blind as a bat.” Bats see can just as well as any other mammal, says BCI. However, their adaptation to hunt bugs – a biological sonar system, echolocation – allows them to navigate and hunt fast-flying insects like mosquitoes in total darkness. Bats emit beep-like sounds at pitches most people cannot hear, collect and analyze the echoes of these beeps, and use them to differentiate between a flying moth vs. a wind-blown piece of plant duff. Using sound, bats can see everything but color and detect obstacles as fine as a human hair.

• “Flying mice…” The German word for bat is fledermaus, essentially flying mouse, but bats and mice are worlds apart. Bats are mammals, and they are mouse-sized, but they’re not rodents, like mice.

• The hair thing. If a bat can see and sense an object as fine as a human hair in the dark, how are they not going whack into even a big bouffant hairdo?

• The evil, vampire stuff - Of more than 1,300 bat species worldwide, only three feed on blood, and all of these are located well south of Montana – in Central and South America’s tropical forests. Vampire bats don’t suck blood, they feed by making an incision with sharp teeth in sleeping livestock or birds, rarely a human. Its saliva contains an anticoagulant (this was developed into a human medication) that prevents blood from clotting, and the bat laps up the blood that comes out. 


Montana’s bats

According to FWP, Montana has 15 species of bats. Some live in groups, others are solitary. Some might roost in a house if access is available, others would never enter a house. Several species have declined in numbers over the past few decades. Because of their beneficial contribution to reducing insect populations and as pollinators, bats should be encouraged. 

Five species are of special concern: Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, Spotted Bat, Hoary Bat, Little Brown Myotis (bat) and the Fringed Myotis

Locally, it is possible to encounter 10 of the 15 bat species, including all five of the species of special concern. Local bats include:

• Big Brown Bat - Found across western Montana, this is a large bat with copper colored fur, that emerges at dusk for forage for mostly beetles, but also ants, flies, mosquitoes, mayflies, stoneflies, moths, aphids, and other bugs. Its flight is steady, about 20 – 30 feet high. After feeding it flies to a night roost to rest and digest. Big browns mate any time from September to March, with one young, born in late June.

• Fringed myotis – Found statewide, this is a long-earned bat, with yellowish-brown to dark olive colors, black ears and membranes. Its name comes from the fringe of hairs on its uropatagium (crotch). Females are significantly larger in the head, body and forearm. Fringed myotis eat beetles, moths, other insects and spiders, hunting close to the vegetative canopy for a couple of hours after sunset. Usually found in Montana from April through September, males and females live in separate colonies, the females at lower elevations than males, although an attic maternity colony may be composed of many bat species, including this bat. Although a species of concern, no specific management efforts protect fringed myotis in Montana. But, gating caves and abandoned mines to protect roosting habitat helps. 

• Hoary bat – The largest of Montana’s bats, and only a summer resident June – September), this bat gets its name from its frosted or hoary, looking fur.  The ears are short and rounded, rimmed in dark brown or black Hoary bats are forest dwellers, often near water courses. The highest elevation record of a hoary bat came from the treeline along the Gravelly Range Road, here in Madison County, according to FWP. These bats eat moths, leafhoppers, lacewings, flies and other bugs, although they have been know to attack, kill, and eat pipistrelle bats. Hoary bats tend to be solitary, roosting primarily in deciduous trees, sometimes caves, squirrel nests or clinging to the sides of buildings as high as 16 feet. Their flight is swift and direct and they hunt for about four hours after sunset. Hoary bats bear their young in June,  1 to 4 pups. Mating probably occurs during late summer and autumn migration, but implantation is delayed until spring. Again, no specific management measures have been enacted to protect hoary bats in Montana. Fatal collisions with barbed wire, and wind turbines – these bats are drawn to prominent landmarks during migration – have been reported.

• Little Brown bat – This is Montana’s most common bat, spread across the state, yet another species of concern. It is colored cinnamon-buff to dark brown above, buffy to pale gray below. The little brown is a year-round resident, found in a variety of habitats, and it can live as long as 30 years. It commonly hunts over water, eating gnats, mosquitoes, crane flies, beetles, wasps, and moths, caught with tip of wing then transferred immediately to mouth. Summer day roosts include attics, barns, bridges, snags, loose bark, and bat houses. Maternity roosts – females have one pup per year, in late June or July -- in are primarily buildings, while these bats hibernate in caves and mines.  Maternity colonies are vulnerable to being kicked out of buildings. Bat boxes attached to these buildings can be an alternative.

• Long-eared Myotis  - This bat’s long ears support its name, the longest of any North American bat. The long-ear looks similar to little brown bat, but is slightly larger, with a wingspan of 10-12 inches, the coat is dull brown to straw. It lives in a wide range of rocky and forested habitats on may elevations, summer day roosting in abandoned buildings, bridges, hollow trees, stumps, under loose bark, and rock fissures. Long-ears primarily eat moths, beetles,  flies, lacewings, true bugs and spiders emerging from their roosts about half an hour after dark. Highly maneuverable, they glen bugs from tree leaves and bark, even off the ground. Again, the sexes are separated, with females in maternity colonies. It is possibly partially migratory.

• Long-legged myotis – This is the mountain bat, living as along as 21 years, in forested mountain regions and river bottoms, also at high elevations. Summer day roosts include trees, rock crevices, fissures in stream banks, abandoned buildings. Hibernacula include caves and mines. Emerging at twilight, and actively foraging all night around tree canopies and water, it primarily eats moths, but a variety of soft-bodied flies, mosquitoes, mayflies, aphids, true bugs and small beetles are also eaten.

• Silver-haired Bat  - This bat’s range is southern Montana. It is a mostly black bat, with silvery-white tipped back hairs – hence the name.  It is believed to be migratory, with some individuals remaining year-round. It prefer mature forest, riparian woodlands and aspen. Summer day roosts include tree cavities, under loose bark, also bird nests, sheds, and barns. Hibernacula include tree cavities, rock crevices, and buildings. Silver haired bats emerge early, fly slow and eat moths, flies, mosquitoes, true bugs, caddisflies, termites and beetles . As with other bats, the sexes are separated, with maternity colonies small and at lower altitudes.

• Spotted bat - Spotted Bats differ from other Montana bats in the unique patterning of their fur (large white spots on the shoulders, rump, and at the base of the ear), and their huge pink ears. Their echolocation call (a loud click) is also very audible to humans. These bats like open arid habitats dominated by sagebrush, juniper and some conifer stands in the summer, then move to lower elevations in late summer. Here, they eat moths, beetles and other small insects fairly close to the ground, sometimes on the ground. They tend to be solitary hunters, maintaining exclusive hunting grounds that other bats avoid, and they range out as far as six miles from the roost to hunt. Cliffs, rocky outcrops, and water are also important, because they roost in caves, cracks and crevices in cliffs and canyons – they crawl horizontally and vertically with ease. Spotted bats may migrate south for the winter, but biologists aren’t sure; they could also be hibernating in small clusters in cliffs, and to some degree caves. Spotted bats give birth to a single pup in June. A species of concern, spotted bat have persisted from more than half a century where they were first discovered in Montana, according to FWP, although there is a lack of information about this species. The bat’s preference for cliffs may be its blessing.

• Townsend’s Big-eared Bat – Another little-known but big-eared bat, Townsend’s, also known as the “lump-nosed bat, “ has extremely long, brownish ears that are joined at the base, prominent lumps on the nose and darker fur. It is a year-round state resident, using caves, abandoned mines and old buildings for maternity roosts and hibernacula. Townsends seems to prefer pine forests, juniper-sagebrush scrub and cottonwood bottomlands.  This bat feeds on various nocturnal flying insects near foliage specializing in small moths, lacewings, beetles, flies and wasps. It begins hunting about an hour after sunset, and covers great distances to feed. Females form maternity colonies of 20 - 180 bats during spring and summer, each giving birth to a singe pup. Only five such maternity colonies are known in Montana: One is in Lewis & Clark Caverns State Parks, FWP says, and has been there for 100 years, despite daily cave tour groups. Both sexes hang out at cooler caves as fall comes. Observations of Townsend’s roosts should be reported to FWP.

• Western small-footed Myotis – This small bat, wingspan 8 – 10 inches, has light brown to yellowish brown fur, small hind feed and a bare snout. It likes arid conifer forests, with rock outcrops, talus, clay banks and riparian woodlands. Summer day roosts include rock outcrops, clay banks, loose bark, buildings, bridges, caves, and mines. Hibernacula include caves and mines. The small foot hunts small insects, including flies, mosquitoes, caddisflies, beetles and moths using a slow, erratic flight low over the ground.

Enjoy Montana’s bats; they are some of our more beneficial and fascinating wildlife residents.

Swoop in for Bat Week at Lewis & Clark Caverns

WHITEHALL– Montana State Parks ( will host the 8th annual Bat Week, August 12-18, 2018, at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park. Swoop into the park to learn more about these mysterious and often misunderstood creatures. Enjoy bat events and interpretive talks every day of the week, with special bat tours and bat walks on offer.

Bat Week programs are free and open to the public, except the Misunderstood Bat tours.

Bat Week Schedule:

• Thursday, Aug. 16 - A Batty Education: What We Learn from Bats, 8 p.m., campground amphitheater. 

• Friday, Aug.  17 - An Overview of Bats in Montana, guest speaker Bryce Maxell, 8 p.m., campground amphitheater.

• Saturday, Aug. 18 - Bats and Us, 8 p.m., campground amphitheater; Bat Walk! 9 p.m.  meet at campground amphitheater. 

For more information about these or other events at Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, call (406) 287-3541.

Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park features one of the most decorative limestone caverns in the Northwest filled with spectacular stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and helictites. The park also features camping, trails to hike or bike, a state-of-the-art visitor center, interpretive displays, a gift shop, food and beverage concessions, amphitheater, and interpretive events presented during the summer months.

Visit Montana State Parks ( and enjoy camping, hiking, fishing, swimming, boating and more and discover some of the greatest natural and cultural treasures on earth.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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