The hiker who had paused along the trail to Mystic Lake looked skeptical.
He had amiably asked if the long green aluminum poles poking out of Zachery Farrand’s backpack were for probing avalanches?
No, Farrand told him, they are used for bat research.
“Bats, in the Beartooths?” the hiker questioned. He hadn’t seen any, nor had his companions.
But Farrand assured him they did fly around at night in the high mountain range of south-central Montana. He has proof.
Need to know
Farrand, a 20-year-old Rocky Mountain College student from Springfield, Mo., has conducted a three-month study in two areas of the Beartooth Mountains this spring — the Line Creek Plateau at the southern end of the range, and up the West Rosebud Creek drainage, just past Mystic Lake. The idea is to learn how bats are using different elevations from 6,000 to 10,000 feet, and what species of bats are utilizing the high mountains.
Understanding the types of bats exploiting different habitats is important because so little is known about the small, flying mammals. The need to know has been heightened since 2006, when white nose syndrome began killing off large numbers of bats in New York. The bat-killing fungus has since spread as far west as Oklahoma, killing off 5.7 million bats and prompting a greater concern about the survival of the animals.
“So there’s a concern that if white nose syndrome shows up here, we won’t know what we lost because we don’t know what we had,” said Kayhan Ostovar, a professor of environmental studies at RMC who is overseeing Farrand’s study.
Bats are important to the ecosystem in part because of all of the flying insects they eat. According to Farrand’s research, a little brown bat can eat up to 600 mosquito-sized insects in one hour and lactating females can eat up to 110 percent of their body weight in one night. One estimate put
the savings to agriculture for pest management at $3.7 billion. Bottom line: Fewer bats means more bugs.
Before Farrand’s study, the only other research on the Custer National Forest — which covers the southern half of the Beartooth Mountains — totaled 20 nights. By the end of his research, Farrand will have spent 24 nights in the mountains collecting data.
“We don’t know a lot about these high elevation species,” he said.
His work has been funded by Rocky’s Yellowstone Research Center in partnership with the Custer National Forest.
To verify what type of bats are using the landscape and when, Farrand has hiked into the mountains for four nights in a row since May. Near his campsites he deployed three high-frequency sensors that are plugged into recording devices atop the long aluminum poles that garner so much attention from other hikers. Bats produce high-pitched screeches that can’t be heard by humans, but the sensor picks them up and a 3.5-second recording is made.
Bats use the calls to determine the distance of prey, as well as vegetation or other obstacles in their flight path — a radar-like skill called echolocation. As the bats try to zero in on the location of prey, the calls can become more frequent.
When Farrand returns to Billings, he plugs the data card from the recording device into a computer that has software called SonoBat. The software analyzes the call and determines which species of bat most likely made the sound based on a statistical analysis.
So far, Farrand has documented silver-haired, long-earred myotis, little brown, big brown, hoary, long-legged and western small-footed myotis bats during his research — seven of Montana’s known 15 species. There is one general differentiation among bat species — those that roost in trees and those that roost in cave-like sites.
He’s also documented an increase in bat activity as his study has progressed from May into June and July, showing that the animals seem to migrate to the higher elevations as the weather warms and snow melts into waters that insects hatch from.
Last Thursday night, Farrand and Ostovar set up a 12-foot-high mist net on a pond near the mouth of the West Rosebud canyon in an attempt to capture some bats to verify the species using the area. Windy weather confounded the task. Because the nets would billow and flap in the wind, the bats could detect and avoid them.
So on Friday Farrand strapped on his backpack to hike the six miles into Island Lake for his first of three nights of monitoring, the last tour of his summer study. The late-night work – which starts at dusk and extends past midnight – along with the trekking into remote sites, has been a unique backcountry experience for Farrand.
“I’ve done a fair amount of stuff on my own, but not for four nights in a row like this,” he said. “The solitude has an effect on you, not having anybody else around.”
In his down time he has read a lot, and sometimes even goes for a trail run to break up the monotony. Occasionally he’ll talk to himself as he tries to sort questions out, but so far he hasn’t answered back.
“It can be kind of stressful trying to conduct a study on my own,” he said. “I have to decide right then and hope I made the right choice.”
All of the hiking has left him lean and quick on the steep uphill climbs. The night work has left him looking sleepy.
Farrand’s dedication has impressed his professor.
“I like hiking in the Beartooths, but I don’t think I would have stayed up half the night, stumbling around in the woods when I was his age,” Ostovar said.
Farrand, who said he’s long been fascinated by all forms of life, said the research has given him a greater understanding of the importance of the small, strange looking creatures that many people fear or dismiss as flying mice.
And, he noted as he sat on a wave-washed beach with a rugged, snow-creviced peak rising in the distance, “It’s not a bad place to do research.”