- Associated Press - Saturday, September 13, 2014

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - As the sky grows dark above an old and empty ranch house near Lake Catamount, Rob Schorr and his team of researchers switch on their headlamps and start listening for the screeches.

In a few minutes, dozens and dozens of little brown bats will start to fly out of the attic.

The researchers want to catch as many of them as they can.

A few minutes before the bats start to stir, Jeremy Siemers is making some final adjustments on his laptop computer on the front porch as Schorr and helpers Justin Unrein and Carli Baum are carefully positioning a large aluminum frame that is filled with what looks like harp strings near the front door of the house.

To someone who isn’t briefed about this nocturnal research, it may appear as though Schorr and the team are auditioning to be in a future “Ghostbusters” movie.

But in about 30 minutes, the researchers will have bags full of bats.

Most bats that try to fly though the harp trap will get sucked down into a plastic bag and carefully picked up by the researchers.

But there is a slight challenge.

Bats aren’t stupid.

Because this is Night 2 of trapping the bats, some of the animals have learned the position of Schorr’s traps and will move to ignore them.

So the traps are switched around this night to try to trick the clever bats.

It’s just after 8 on this summer night.

Harrison Creek is roaring through a nearby meadow as it makes its way to Lake Catamount.

The researchers’ tents are pitched nearby.

The bats will come out soon.

East of Colorado, millions of bats are being wiped out by a devastating and seemingly unstoppable disease.

A newly discovered fungus is causing white-nose syndrome, a rapidly spreading disease that since 2006 has killed off millions of bats in the eastern United States and Canada.

And it’s edging closer to Colorado.

In some areas, whole populations of bats have vanished, leaving the skies without an important predator that is an expert at hunting mosquitoes and other insects that bother humans and damage crops.

The fungus kills bats in a very cruel way.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Liza Rossi said the fungus affects hibernating bats in the winter by making them itchy and waking them up at times they usually are not awake.

“They come out during the day and much more frequently, and they burn through their fat reserves,” Rossi said. “It’s changing their needs.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that the fungus has killed more than 5.5 million bats in the U.S. and Canada.

In 2010, it was feared the disease had emerged in a cave in Oklahoma, but today it appears to have been a false alarm and no infested bats have been found so close to Colorado since.

Scientists across the country are hurrying to learn more about the disease, its impact and how it can be prevented.

That’s because the disease’s spread could continue to have a profound impact on the country’s ecology and economy.

In Steamboat Springs, researchers have a rare and unique window into the world of bats that someday could help in the fight against white-nose.

Bats don’t seem to enjoy being captured and handled by strangers.

When Schorr’s team of researchers with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program started plucking them from the traps after 9 p.m., some of the bats immediately tried to bite through the researchers’ latex or leather gloves.

They squirm and wiggle around in your hand.

They fly at high speeds just inches from your face.

And when they open their mouths, a very small but still menacing set of sharp teeth is revealed.

On the faces of the researchers, though, there is no intimidation or nervousness, only excitement.

Here at this old ranch, researchers are hoping to better understand an animal they still have many questions about.

When the bats are caught, they are put in soft fabric bags and taken to a rustic table littered with equipment.

Under a lamp, Schorr and Siemers start to go through a routine.

They first examine the bat to determine its relative age and sex, and then it is placed upside down in a medicine bottle to be weighed.

After that, each bat is outfitted with a passive integrated transponder, or PIT tag.

The device is about the size of a grain of rice and is injected into the bat’s wing for the rest of its life.

For years to come, if the bat is caught again, it can be scanned to display a unique ID number.

“We’re going to try to revisit them several times over the next couple of years and see how the population has changed over time so we have baseline data,” Schorr said. “It’s a broader question of trying to figure out what the population change might be should a disease like white-nose syndrome make its way to Colorado.”

With a baseline count of the bat population, state wildlife agencies may be able to more quickly detect the presence of white-nose and react before it’s too late.

Technology is making this process easier.

An antenna installed at the ranch house automatically scans the PIT tags on the bats as they fly in and out of the building.

The PIT tagging allows researchers to do many things.

If an unlucky bat is recaptured twice in one evening, for instance, it can be weighed again to get an idea of how many grams’ worth of insects it has consumed during a set time period.

The researchers also can track the age of bats at this maternity colony near Steamboat Springs and see how many are returning to the same place.

“With the unique tags, we then develop a history for them,” Schorr said. “We can develop what’s called an encounter history, and from that we can put that encounter history into mathematical models to predict things like capture probability and survival over time, which is what we really want to know. How do they survive over time and stabilize populations? And we can estimate the population size.”

The Rehder Ranch is thought to be one of the larger maternity roosts in the state of Colorado, and it has turned into an ideal place for bat research.

Here, hundreds of bats are thought to live inside the historic structures.

One recent count logged more than 600 bats.

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Information from: Steamboat Pilot & Today, http://steamboatpilot.com/

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