The balancing act: conserving habitat for threatened bats on timberlands in the heart of Appalachia

FSC / Julián Manrique
close up of bat held in gloved hands
FSC / Julián Manrique
November 11, 2021
Category : Stories

A unique partnership between a forest management company, a university, and state and federal agencies produced a study that revealed how landowners can sustainably harvest timber and help make a home for bats.

The second you step out of the car and into the forest, you feel small. There’s a cacophony of insects and birds wailing in surround sound, volumes rising and falling in the midday heat.

And then there’s the green colour – deep emerald green, bright, yellowy sun-dappled green and almost every shade in between that you could ever imagine. Look up, and the sky is thick with leaves and branches. Look down, and you can’t even see the soil. Both the forest floor and the canopy are teaming with life –salamanders, beetles, songbirds. Though it may feel like it, you’re not in the tropics. This is deep in the forests of Eastern Appalachia, Kentucky.

wide angle view of Appalachian mountain forests in Kentucky
FSC / Julián Manrique

An abandoned barn, wood bleached grey and almost completely swallowed by time, stands at the entrance to this 1,300-acre tract of land. This is part of a much larger 47,000-acre swath acquired by The Forestland Group, a TIMO (timber investment management organization), in 2012. The Forestland Group buys forest land, manages and eventually sells it. The organization has an eye towards climate mitigation and conservation, guided by strong environmental ethics.

For Alex Finkral, Chief Forester and Vice President of Conservation at The Forestland Group, it’s the complex tapestry of hardwoods and softwood species like hickory, sycamore, tulip poplar and white oak that make this region’s natural forests a fascinating place to work.

The Appalachian region is also the largest biodiversity ‘hotspot’ in the United States. Microhabitats here form unique ecological niches that can help protect rare, threatened and endangered species. “Their economic and ecological dimensions are like an impossible puzzle that we’re always trying to solve,” he says.

The puzzle they’re trying to solve here is not just how to responsibly manage a working forest;  this forest isn’t just the site of a sustainable timber harvest operation – it’s a research experiment. The Forestland Group wanted to know, can you do a commercially viable harvest that provides the right habitat attributes to help certain rare, threatened or endangered species thrive?

To do this, they set their sights on one species in particular – the bat. Specifically, the northern long-eared bat and the Indiana bat. They formed a unique public–private partnership with the University of Kentucky, and state and federal agencies to come together “in the spirit of learning a little bit more about bats and what they like,” says Finkral.

What they found is an easily applicable sustainable management solution. This has a positive impact not only on the future survival of these two threatened species, but also empowers forest landowners to become conservationists in their own backyards.

With all their properties Forest Stewardship Council® certified since 2005, The Forestland Group has been able to ramp up their conservation game to manage this forest responsibly and provide a habitat for species to thrive over time.

“So, you need to have a commitment to long-term thinking,” Finkral explains. “It’s the kind of place where you can spend decades and just be scratching the surface.”

man with hiking stick stands on hill in green forest
FSC / Julián Manrique

Scratching the surface of this lush, wild forest is a day-to-day reality for Steven Roach, Vice President of Operations at Advantage Timberland. He’s been managing the timber harvesting on this property for the past ten years, and has worked in forests for over 20.

Roach knows this forest like the back of his hand, and it shows as he points out spots where white-tailed deer have licked minerals off the ground, and the coal seams, interbedded sandstone and shale that make up the rock walls of the hill.

“I ain’t been up here in a while. You can see how the forest gets pretty thick,” he says as he deftly dodges multiple rows of thorny blackberry bushes, clearing the path for those behind him. “Don’t let it get hold of you,” he warns, “it doesn’t like to let go.”

We head into the harvested part of the site, past an old log landing to a stream crossing. “This area on the map is what’s called a perennial stream,” Roach explains, “and when we have crossings like this, we put in culverts and cover them with dirt. Sometimes we’ll lay wood or straw across them, to protect the stream when we strike the logs.”

The Forestland Group has worked hard to make this timber harvest sustainable, using best management practices like not harvesting trees within 50 feet of the stream, and reseeding areas with a native grass and seed mixture to stabilize the soils.

“We go above and beyond … even beyond the state BMP reforms,” he says, a hint of pride leaking into his slow, Kentucky drawl as he refers to the best management practices the state suggests implementing.

For example, take skid roads – trails made by skidders taking logs down to the landing by ‘skidding’ or dragging them out. To mitigate erosion and damage from the big, heavy machinery and keep sediment out of the creek, Roach and his team laid out small logs perpendicular to the road, in a pattern called corduroy (like corduroy trousers).

Finkral admits even without FSC® certification, they’d still be doing a lot of these things anyway. “But FSC just ramps it up a notch. It makes you more accountable and increases eyes in the woods. All of that leads to better practices in the end.”

For the bat habitat experiment, The Forestland Group and their partners designated three treatment areas, roughly 100 acres each, as three different silvicultural projects. What they wanted to do was tweak the forest here and there by selective harvesting and thinning, but also by leaving an intact control area, and creating group shelterwood – cutting small one-acre openings or ‘holes’ in the canopy to regenerate new tree growth.

But which habitat, each with different light, heat and food source variations, would the bats choose? To find the answers, they needed someone on the front line of critical habitat protection for this species. So, they brought in the ‘bat man’.

Mike Lacki leans over his equipment: scales, a pair of gloves and a lantern are placed on top of an upside-down cat litter box, “in lieu of a table,” he says. We’re sitting in a circle on the ground, flashlights in hand, tense but eager. The whole thing has the air of a stakeout. But instead of waiting for criminals to appear, we’re waiting to catch a bat.

“Can we get some net checkers? Let’s see if you got something for me. I want to hear a holler!” Lacki has set up mist netting, super-fine mesh black nets that look almost like volleyball nets, across the trail.

We’re in FSC-certified Robinson Forest, a huge, almost 15,000-acre watershed area administered by the University of Kentucky. Though the forest is used for all kinds of research including forestry, geology and archaeology, it’s still a very wild place. A bear recently ate the sign to the off-field site. We’re told not to venture too far off the trail for fear of copperheads, a poisonous snake common in the area.

man walking down forest road in the dark with flashlight
FSC / Julián Manrique

It’s late, and dark. But Lacki doesn’t mind. He shares one habit with the species he’s been studying so intensely over the past forty years – he’s nocturnal. “I never go to bed before 1 a.m.,” he explains. “Sometimes I’m up till 2 a.m. even, and I’m awake by 6:30 a.m.”

A former professor of forestry and wildlife and the University of Kentucky, Lacki is now retired and a professor emeritus. He spent the greater part of his career focusing on the conservation ecology and natural history of North America’s insectivorous bats. He’s worked with colonies throughout the continent, from the west coast to New York state and many places in between.

Lacki, who describes himself as a “Halloween kind of guy,” has always been into bats. First of all, he thinks it’s cool that they can fly. “As a child I would watch them at night in the sky and was fascinated with their manoeuvrability,” he explains.

Lacki is also drawn to their echolocation capabilities – how they use Doppler shift patterns to assess movement, speed and direction, and identify not just individual insects but whole communities. Further into his career, Lacki realized how much communication takes place between bats, how they help each other find out where food is, and where other roosts are.

“And so, when I think about them from the standpoint of all that they can do that we cannot, why not be fascinated by them?” Lacki knows bats have a bad reputation for rabies (very few people catch it), pandemic-causers (inconclusive) and the whole vampire thing (there are no vampire bats in Europe).

But he says this ‘widely misunderstood group of animals’ has an important role in natural ecosystems. Bats pollinate plants and are a solid source of natural insect control. Their faeces, known as guano, build up in the bottom of caves and create an entire ecosystem.

Bats also serve as gauges of biodiversity because they’re extra sensitive to things like pesticides and other environmental stressors. “Loss of bats,” Lacki explains, “is an indicator to us that when that’s happening, something’s wrong.”

scientist holds close up bat with gloves
FSC / Julián Manrique

And something is wrong.

Since 2006, Lacki and others in his field have been in ‘emergency mode’, fighting the devastating effects of white-nose syndrome. It’s a disease where a fungus grows on the nose of hibernating bats, causing them to wake up and deplete vital energy.

The disease has led to massive and dramatic colony die-offs in hibernation areas across the country, killing an estimated 6.7 million bats. The consequences have been severe, especially for northern long-eared bats, whose numbers have declined by up to 90 per cent in the north-east.

One quality of bats that gives hope in this scenario is that they are highly adaptable. Those skid trails left by logging machines? Bats will zip back and forth on them – it’s like an express lane on the highway. The northern long-eared bat roosts in trees near the edge of the road.

And the openings, those holes in canopy left in the group shelterwood treatment? Bats love them. They make really good foraging areas, especially for gleaning bats, who rely less on echolocation and more on the sounds of their prey.

Gleaning bats, like the northern long-eared and the Indiana bats, like to pick insects off fallen leaves on the forest floor. This kind of ground vegetation is called clutter, so University of Kentucky researchers changed the distribution of clutter in their treatment areas, creating a mixture of shade-tolerant and intolerant species so at night, roosting bats don’t have to go far for their meals.

Leaving big trees with no clutter opens a refuge, a place where bats can roost and rear their young. Large hollow trees with big flaky bark are safe places for micro-hibernation/going into a torpor during the day. They can even regulate their own body heat by moving up and down a tree to get more or less sunlight.

These artificial changes mimic natural disturbances, creating conditions for bats to thrive. Says Finkral:

It’s mother nature … just a little more organized.

Easy flyways and ready access to food means healthy bats, and helps them to eat more efficiently and build up body weight. Crucially, it reduces white-nose syndrome as well, because the species can spread out. They don’t have to cluster together as much and spread the disease.

It’s about an hour and a half into the stakeout when we see a net runner coming back, holding a small bag with something moving in it. “She’s either pregnant, or just gave birth,” Lacki says, examining the bat, “either way, she’s lactating.”

She wriggles, then preens, then darts out her tongue to catch insects as the camera clicks underneath her, unaware of her current star status. “Because she’s coming out of hibernation, if she’s been affected by the fungus, she’s probably lower in body mass and a little bit debilitated in her physiology and metabolism. But she’s still going to try and raise her young.”

Unlike other small mammals, Lacki explains, these bats don’t have big litters, producing only one or two offspring a year. “So, when that’s all you can produce, the ability for your populations to rebound takes a lot longer.”

close up of bat with wings spread by gloved hands
FSC / Julián Manrique

Lacki gently spreads the bat’s thin, gossamer-like wings. They have such a delicate texture, like parchment. Bugs are circling his headlamp like crazy. A giant dragonfly plops on his cheek and stays there. He ignores that completely to focus on the bat. His eyes are gleaming in wonderment, like a child’s.

“And so hopefully, we can create conditions that are good for young affected females to survive the summer maternity season and slowly recover,” Lacki says.

“I know you’re irritated. C’mon, c’mon.” He can’t hold her for much longer. She’s screeching. “You’re free!” he says as he lets her go, to get on with the business of the night.

On the backroads of Hazard, Kentucky are boarded-up stores, mobile homes and abandoned coal preparation plants. Coal production, once a large economic force in this region, fell last year to its lowest level here since 1965. But the forest sector is still going strong, driving almost $14 billion in economic contributions and creating an estimated 53,000 jobs.

Jeff Stringer, Chairman of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Kentucky, stands among a pile of white oak staves, or planks, neatly stacked. We’re here at the University of Kentucky’s wood utilization centre, the site of an old sawmill on the edge of Robinson Forest. It’s part of a group of FSC-certified forests that he manages.

Stringer explains that high-quality white oak logs can be used for veneer, or for barrel staves like the pile we’re standing near, for ageing the legendary Kentucky bourbon. Lower-quality logs can be cut into cross ties for railroad tracks. “Every species has different things you could use them for. Within a tree, you also have different product types.”

Stringer is a pragmatist: he knows this land and its people well, and he knows that loggers are going to carry on logging. But in terms of forest management and habitat preservation, he’d like to meet them halfway. He knows that’s possible.

“In some places, like even in western Kentucky, land is a lot more of a commodity. You buy, you sell, you make money,” Stringer says. “Here, it’s your backyard, you have a much deeper emotional link to the land.”

More than 75 per cent of the private forests in the country are owned by small landowners, spread out in small parcels mostly in the south-east.

So how do you convince the 430,000 people that own forest land in Kentucky to consider biodiversity? That’s where the results of the study come in.

“The beauty about it is, you can have an average landowner with 100 acres of woods, right? That landowner can put those little openings in. Every landowner could do that.”

The same practices, like distributed cuts implemented on a large scale by The Forestland Group, can be done on a very small scale by a family forest, or small woodland owners as well.

If you’re FSC certified, another economic incentive for small landowners is that they can sell high-quality lumber and pulp products to a market for FSC-certified wood. It’s not only good for forests, but good for the bats. “… because you’re not in there running machinery, not flying around with helicopters, blowing herbicide everywhere,” explains Stringer.

Stringer says that FSC audits provide safeguards. “We’ve had landowners that would not do a timber harvest until they became FSC certified, because that certification assured them that there was technical expertise on the operation to help them meet their sustainability objectives.”

When it comes to investing, Finkral admits an eastern hardwood mixed species forest versus just planting trees in rows can be a hard sell. “This is woollier,” he says. “Here, people walk out into this mess of species diversity, site irregularity, rocky, thin soils and deep fertile soils, and say what in the world is going on?

Then there’s complexity of time – eastern hardwoods take decades to reach maturity, and decisions you make now will set the stage for sustainability to occur over long periods. Where this fits well, Finkral believes, is as part of a diversified investment portfolio. Because when the stock market falls in value, forests don’t – they continue to accrue value. The Forestland Group’s commitment to FSC’s forest management standards helps ease investors’ minds. Finkral: “For a lot of investors, investment in forests is very risky and scary. FSC offers a nice little sedative – everything is going to be okay.”

For The Forestland Group, they’re guaranteeing that what they learned about bats can work in the field – they took the data and ran with it. They’ve integrated the results of the bat study into their Forest Information Portal, an internal database of all their properties. Now, forest managers like Steven in other states have powerful tools they can use to identify known occurrences of rare, threatened and endangered species like bats. They can prioritize protecting them through designated conservation zones, following vital biodiversity indicators that are part of FSC’s US forest management standards.

The bat study itself is ongoing, and Mike Lacki looks forward to coming back in ten years’ time to check on how the forest’s age diversity has affected the bats. Even though he’s retired now, he says he’ll do it anyway – like a detective brought back to solve just one more case.

Like many others, he just can’t resist the air of intrigue surrounding these mysterious creatures. Bats are everywhere, on every continent except Antarctica. Although it’s estimated there’s around 1,200 species of bats worldwide, Lacki says only about a quarter of them have been studied.

There’s so much more to bats that we just don’t know.