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Endangered Bats Find Army Base a Refuge : Research: Soldiers guard haven of 1,000 rare creatures around the clock.

REUTERS

At dusk, hundreds of bats soar out of an abandoned structure here in search of food for themselves and their young.

No, it’s not a Texas version of Count Dracula’s castle.

It’s an abandoned building at Ft. Bliss that has become the refuge of about 1,000 rare and endangered species of bats, making it the largest known maternity colony for pallid bats in the nation, base officials said.

Pallid bats, named for their light-colored fur, are native to the southwestern United States, but have lost most of their natural habitat because of efforts to seal up mines and the increasing popularity of recreational caving.

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The Ft. Bliss bat haven is located on a remote piece of land on the Army base.

Ft. Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offut said the bat colony was discovered by accident recently when workers went in to renovate the building. Biologist Donna Howell was called in after they found droppings and heard strange noises.

“This is the largest and the most protected bat colony in the country,” said Col. Allen Kiezer, adding that the building, which had been earmarked to store maintenance equipment, will be taken out of military use. Since the discovery, it is guarded around the clock.

Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said 40% of all bat species are endangered. They said bats have been killed by pesticides and vandals who either destroy their habitat or kill the bats for fun.

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Several years ago, another large bat colony in Ft. Stanton, N.M., was vandalized and 200 bats were stabbed to death while they were in deep hibernation and unable to fly away.

“People don’t like bats,” Ft. Bliss biologist Howell said. “People like horses because they star in movies like ‘Black Beauty.’ Bats star in horror movies.”

Howell, also known as Batwoman because of her specialty, has been fascinated with bats since she was a teen-ager. For the last 20 years, she has even kept three bats as roommates.

She buys worms by the thousands to feed her pets and sometimes even catches scorpions for them. “They love scorpions,” she said. “That’s a real treat.”

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“People should like bats because they eat bugs,” she said. “They’re natural insecticides. Although songbirds are also good natural insecticides, bats eat the more agriculturally damaging pests, which are nocturnal.”

The Ft. Bliss colony is made up of about 1,000 female pallid and little brown bats and their babies.

“This isn’t just any old site,” Howell said. “This is special. People say bats can live in any old building, but they need a site with special temperature and humidity so they can give birth.”

The bats live in holes in the wall and ceiling of the cinder-block building that is warm enough in winter and cool enough in summer. Howell said the area is abundant in wildflowers, meaning there is an abundance of bugs for bat food.

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And while the military has studied bats in the past for their sonar, Howell said the Ft. Bliss bats will not be captured and tested.

She said many bats have died when scientists attempted to tag them for studies because the animals tend to chew on their tags until they bleed to death.

The Ft. Bliss bats probably would die from any human contact, no matter how well-meaning, Howell said. If people come looking around, the bats would “freak out and abandon the roost. They likely will not find another safe haven and the young ones for sure will die,” Howell said.


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