Bat Monitoring at the L’Anse Reservation

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community keeps a keen eye on their Apakwaanaajiinh (Bats)

One morning long ago, the sun rose too close to the earth and became entangled in the branches of a tree. When dawn failed to arrive, the animals knew something was wrong and went searching. Eventually it was the squirrel who came upon the sun trapped in the top of a very tall tree. Sun pleaded for help, so the small brown squirrel climbed the tree and began to chew the branches until Sun was free. In doing so however, Squirrel was badly burnt and blinded by Sun’s intense light. “Little Brother,” Sun said, “You have helped me. Now I will give you something in return. Is there anything you have always wanted?” Squirrel told Sun that he always wanted to fly. Sun smiled. “From now on you will fly better than birds, but my light will be too bright for you. You will see in the dark and hear everything around you as you fly.”

Traditional indigenous creation story of the Apakwaanaajiinh (bat). Credit: Ojibwe traditional healer Harlan Downwind

Wildlife Coordinator Kyle Seppanen sets up an ultrasonic acoustic microphone and monitoring station to record the calls of passing bats within the L’Anse Indian Reservation, Baraga County, Michigan. Photo courtesy of Kyle Seppanen

Situated by the shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community has long approached environmental stewardship with an understanding that they live in the landscape, not on it. The idea of healthy coexistence between humans and nature within Anishinaabe culture is reflected in a Wildlife Stewardship Plan that prioritizes honoring and supporting mutual relationships between people and the land, water, and all other beings. This includes Apakwaanaajiinh — the bat.

That’s why the Community’s wildlife experts have been closely monitoring the bats that dwell on the L’Anse Reservation since 2015. Two of the species found on the reservation — little brown bat and big brown bat — are among the hardest hit by white-nose syndrome, the fungal disease that has devastated populations of hibernating bat species in the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

Kyle Seppanen, a tribal member known by his coworkers as “Batman,” is the go-to person concerning anything bat-related for the Community. As wildlife coordinator, Seppanen works alongside wildlife biologist Erin Johnston to carry out bat research for the Community’s Natural Resources Department.

“[Kyle] can pick a site like no other,” Johnston said. “He can read the landscape and the signs of wildlife use, making him adept at conducting and directing wildlife surveys.”

The data Seppanen collects will inform population status and trends for all six species of bats detected on the reservation: silver-haired bats, hoary bats, big brown bats, little brown bats, Eastern red bats, and tricolored bats.

Preliminary analysis of their data shows a decrease in both little brown bats and big brown bats since the start of the monitoring program, keeping with national trends. Little brown bat wintering colonies have declined by up to 90 percent in some areas.

Initially funded by a program through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Community’s monitoring efforts got a boost in 2019 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s White-nose Syndrome Grants to States and Tribes program. This annual funding opportunity aims to fulfill data needs and implement management actions for bats susceptible to white-nose syndrome. The grant enabled the Community to align their monitoring protocols with those of the North American Bat Monitoring Program, or NABat, and purchase additional equipment and software to support the expansion of monitoring efforts.

The NABat survey protocol uses a standardized monitoring approach that prioritizes long-term data collection at randomly selected sites across North America, each covering a 10 x 10 km area. One of these sites — located on the Baraga side of the L’Anse Indian Reservation — has been a focus for the Community’s efforts. Each year between June 1 and July 31, biologists monitor bats in this area by recording their calls at dusk. In addition to setting up stationary recording devices, they drive along survey routes traversing the L’Anse Indian Reservation and some of the surrounding land with microphones affixed to the roof of a pickup truck.

a black truck with a microphone attached to its roof. A bumper sticker on the back of the truck reads “wildlife survey in progress”, with a circular logo of an eagle to the right.
Mobile acoustic surveys are one of the standardized data collection methods used across the continent under the North American Bat Monitoring Program, or NABat. A microphone affixed to the roof of a vehicle traveling about 20 mph records the calls of passing bats. Recordings are later analyzed for species identification and abundance. Photo courtesy of Kyle Seppanen

And it’s difficult work.

According to Seppanen, “Wildlife chewing through cords, having something build a nest over the microphone, the poles or microphones rotating, and road access due to weather and land-use changes” are just a few of the challenges that arise.

Mobile surveys are also time consuming. To capture the calls of bats flying overhead, you need to limit your speed to just 20 mph.

Though the recent funding has helped the Community expand their bat-monitoring project, they are hoping to broaden their efforts in the coming years. In 2020, Seppanen and Johnston had planned to assist biologists from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources with surveys of nearby hibernacula — sites where bats hibernate in the winter. But Covid-19 put those plans on hold.

Nevertheless, being part of the large network of state, federal, tribal, and non-governmental organizations facilitated by NABat is helping the Community advance their monitoring work. Seppanen and Johnston have found the network to be tremendously helpful in providing technical support for data uploads and analyses — including last year, when a rare tricolored bat call was recorded during one of the surveys. The find highlighted the valuable contributions tribes are making to increase knowledge of bats across the North American landscape.

But in keeping with the Community’s stewardship approach, Seppanen and Johnston are also intently focused on ensuring bats and people continue to coexist on the lands they share. They work closely with the Community’s forester, who gladly enlists their help to identify stands or trees that may benefit bats or other wildlife, and they have plans to increase outreach and education efforts to inform the community about the bats at L’Anse Indian Reservation.

With information, appreciation may come naturally. While the science has provided valuable new insights into bats, it builds on a reverence for Apakwaanaajiinh that dawned at creation.



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