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Bats and COVID-19 

The hypothesis that novel coronavirus stemmed from bats is not reason to mess with local species

The COVID-19 virus has come home to roost with concern for our native bats.

As an Oregon wildlife researcher with duties that include banding birds and bats, I'm required to purchase an expensive permit from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to do my work. As such, I received a letter from the ODFW Wildlife Permit Division, forwarded from State Wildlife Veterinarian Colin Giffin, on the subject of COVID 19 and our native bats. 

The Townsend's big-eared bat, among several species of bats found in Oregon. - JIM ANDERSON
  • Jim Anderson
  • The Townsend's big-eared bat, among several species of bats found in Oregon.
Readers, this is the time of year our bats are leaving their hibernating caves, joined by other bats from around the West to help us control mosquitoes and moths. The letter from our state wildlife veterinarian states this is also the time to stay away from any bat you see, and this is why:

“Unfortunately, Oregon is also experiencing the pandemic coronavirus (the disease referred to as COVID-19 or 2019 novel coronavirus is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2), affecting Oregon residents throughout the state. The connection of these two important issues has led us to provide the following interim guidance for the permittees, researchers, and field staff in Oregon.

“The origin of SAR CoV-2 (or COVID-19) is not precisely known. However, a spillover event (or transmission between species) from wildlife involving COVID-19 to humans is one science-based hypothesis suggesting this strain of coronavirus could have originated in an old world species of bat in Asia. Bats are known to be vectors or reservoirs for many strains of coronavirus including other coronavirus outbreaks (SARS and MERS) and more than 200 other documented viruses.”  
Yes, it is thought bats being sold on a wildlife market in China were carrying the virus and it somehow began infecting humans. Now, please, don't get out your shotguns and start killing every bat you see! Bats have their world to live in and we have ours, and rarely do the two mix.

In addition, bats, as mosquito eaters, play a vital, irreplaceable role in eliminating harmful insects from man’s place among the living. And too, bats have enough to cope with; the terrible European white face disease that is killing them.

The state veterinarian is looking at COVID-19 as carefully as he can, and has this to say:

“We currently do not know if SARS CoV-2 has the potential to be transmitted, cause illness, and be maintained in North American wildlife, and in particular, in Oregon bats and other potentially susceptible species in the families of mustelids and felids.

“There is concern that a spillback event from humans to bats (or other potentially susceptible species), could occur and subsequently make North American bats a permanent reservoir of this coronavirus and COVID-19 infection to humans.”

Back in the ’70’s I was curious about the movements of our local Townsend's big-eared bat and started banding them to discover where they were going when they left the lava caves after hibernating all winter. I was hoping someone would find a a dead one near a pond or other place.

click to enlarge A family of Townsend's big-eared bats. - JIM ANDERSON
  • Jim Anderson
  • A family of Townsend's big-eared bats.

Unfortunately, I never received a return from any of the hundreds I banded, but I did learn something of their mortality and finally, longevity. For over 10 years I banded bats hibernating Boyd Cave, located southeast of Bend. I had one bat that returned to the cave regularly for 10 years, sleeping away the winter in almost in same spot deep in the cave each year.

On the 11th year I found it on the floor of the cave, dead. Someone had shot it.

One day a few years back the wildlife biologist for the Fort Rock District of the Deschutes National Forest, Lew Becker, called and asked, “Hey, Jim, are you still banding bats?” When I answered to the negative and asked him why, he said, “Well, I just came in from (unnamed) cave out by Horse Ridge where I discovered a small band of Townsend's bats, and among them was a banded male.” When I checked the number he gave me it turned out to be one I had banded 21 years earlier.

As the ad says, “We’re all in this together,” and this is just another way of doing our part.

Stay away from our native bats, but if you see one dead or in trouble and want to help, place a box over it with a big rock on top and drop me a line ASAP: jimnaturalist@gmail.com, and I’ll get someone to come and get it, or call the Deschutes County Health Department, 541-322-7400.

Thanks, good people.
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