AUGUSTA — A federal requirement discovered as part of the permitting process for a new fire station in north Augusta has led, in a roundabout way, to a citywide effort to help bats survive.

The population of bats that hibernate in the winter, of which Maine has five species, has been decimated by white nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungus that grows in dark places, including those favored by bats for winter hibernation. It has killed more than 1 million bats in the Northeast and, in some hibernation areas, 90 to 100 percent of bats have died.

This little brown bat has white nose syndrome. The bats are an endangered species because their population has been decimated by the disease, so Augusta officials have launched an effort to protect them by erecting bat houses.

This little brown bat has white nose syndrome. The bats are an endangered species because their population has been decimated by the disease, so Augusta officials have launched an effort to protect them by erecting bat houses. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Their survival is important not just for the bats themselves, but for anyone who doesn’t like mosquitoes. A single bat can eat 6,000 to 8,000 insects a night.

Recently, Augusta firefighters, in their spare time and using their own lumber, built about 35 bat houses to be put up on city property. And next fall, students in the carpentry program at the Capital Area Technical Center, will learn to build bat houses.

All of this grew out of discussions by city officials about a new federal requirement meant to protect northern long-eared bats, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Because of new federal rules, Augusta’s plans for a new fire station, on a site considered to be bat habitat, could not harm bats, City Manager William Bridgeo said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service determined building the station there would not harm bats directly. Construction has begun.

The discussion of bats and their struggles with white nose syndrome prompted firefighters to build bat houses, however, and Ward 3 City Councilor Patrick Paradis to champion efforts to help with their survival.

Augusta City Councilor Pat Paradis, left, poses with Ray Fecteau and a bat house at the Mill Park pétanque courts in Augusta. Fecteau said he hopes the bats will devour bugs attracted to the lights at the court during evening play.

Augusta City Councilor Pat Paradis, left, stands with Ray Fecteau next to a bat house at the Mill Park pétanque courts in Augusta. Fecteau said he hopes the bats will devour bugs attracted to the lights at the court during evening play. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Staff photo by Joe Phelan

“It struck a chord with me and has sort of taken on a life of its own,” Paradis said. “We were going to take down some prime bat habitat. I said, if we’re part of the problem, then why can’t we be part of the solution?”

Paradis contacted school officials, who put him in contact with Jim Holland, director of Capital Area Technical Center.

Holland said building bat houses will be included as part of the course curriculum in the technical center’s carpentry program.

And building bat houses could be beneficial both to bats and students, Holland said.

“Most of them are first-year students, and a lot of them really need to learn basic skills – how to use a tape measure, how to cut, had to use hand tools, power tools, and they need to learn how to measure and then make cuts,” Holland said. “And a lot of cutting work goes into (building a bat house), and that will help our students.”

Paradis said he also hopes elementary school students will get involved in the bat project, such as learning about bats in the classroom and helping select spots where bat houses can be placed, and helping put them up.

“We have this natural way to combat insects (with bats), and the fewer insecticides we use and the more we restore balance in nature to take care of these things, the better off we are,” Paradis said. “If students learn that and take that into their adulthood, I’ll feel like I accomplished something with this.”

Paradis said Hammond Lumber agreed to donate lumber.

Cory Mosby, small mammal biologist with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said white nose syndrome gets on the faces of hibernating bats. That wakes them up, which wastes energy and fat.

“They run through their fat stores before the insects come out, and they die of starvation and exposure,” Mosby said.

He said people can help by building bat houses.

Even a small bat house can hold up to 60 bats. Larger structures can hold 200, Holland said.

Mosby said bat houses should be mounted at least 12 feet high and can be put on the side of a house or barn, or on a standalone pole. They can be put on trees, but they still need full exposure to the sun.

Mosby said bats, which can live 30 years or more, can be brought back as a species from the decimation of the disease.

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