Without a good place to get a drink of water the bats at the Mimbres River are in need of some help. Are you thirsty yet?
Many people like to go out for a jog in the cool of the night. Working up a sweat in the dark feels nice and whenever you get thirsty, just reach for your water bottle. But not everyone has a bottle ready for a quick drink. Some of the other animals out at night have to look long and hard to stay hydrated. Water sources are important to any species, especially in the arid south western US, but for bats water isn’t something they can get just anywhere.
How badly bats need water isn’t an easy question to tackle. According to Dan Taylor the Director of Public Lands Programs from Bat Conservation International and Water for Wildlife (a program devoted to public land management for wild species), without a good place to drink bats populations would suffer in ways that are hard to detect. Without secure water sources “the bats may not have successful breeding that year or have a lower survivorship from juvenile to adult” says Taylor.
With the treacherously fast moving water making the Mimbres River too dangerous to drink from, and with nonnative plants, drought, and other issues reducing the availability of pooled water, thirsty fliers have a big problem. Luckily, Taylor and Water for Wildlife are on the job. When Taylor took on the Mimbres River project he saw that “fixing up the aquatic ecology and the riparian habitat, would benefit a whole suite of wildlife.” The habitat restoration project was originally bird focused, but Taylor was quick to realize the potential benefits for the more than 20 bat species of the area. “I thought that these were some of the same habitats, the same water sources, that are needed by bats and other threatened and endangered wildlife,” said Taylor.
So what’s the plan? According to Taylor, since they finished turning a dry pond into a vibrant wetland for local wildlife, Water for Wildlife and its partners will now focus on the Mimbres River itself. “This fall we will be working on about a half a mile of the upper Mimbres River,” he explained, restoring “where it has been impacted over the years by historic over grazing, logging, road building, and wildfire as well.” Slowing down the Mimbres River would provide the bats with somewhere safe to drink and keep them from become dangerously dehydrated.
Since bats can’t land to drink they need to have enough unobstructed airspace to maneuver around before they can successfully reach the water. For some species this might mean as much as 20 feet of “swoop zone” before they feel safe enough to try, not to mention the dangers of trying to drink from running water and getting swept away with the current. “[If] the water’s moving too fast or if there’s a lot of obstructions like vegetation or, fences… that obstructs access to the water’s surface, [the bats] might not be able to get a drink from that site.”
“Some people may not realize that bats have to have pooled water to drink because they drink while in flight,” Taylor explains, “they swoop down and use their tongue or lower jaw to scoop up a drink of water.” This ability to drink while in flight may have evolved to prevent the bats from becoming a meal for hungry predators like snakes because “if you landed you might make yourself more susceptible to predation,” says Taylor.
Together with their partners Water for Wildlife and BCI are restoring riparian habitats by removing invasive trees, like Siberian elm and tree of heaven, and replacing them with native species like cottonwoods and sycamores instead. With these new trees and additional water pooling areas in the Mimbres River the bats will not only have a great place to forage and live, but a reliable water source they can actually use.
Returning the Mimbres River back to a natural state won’t be easy, and there’s a lot of work to do, but Taylor and his team have a plan. “Right now there is very little water and what water is there kind of just runs straight off, but we’re going to get it back to a much more natural condition, restoring it’s natural meander, reducing bank erosion, and creating the conditions that form natural pools and a more consistent and natural flow regime.”
“There’s no question that it makes a big difference.” Taylor explains when asked how the bats will take to the new pools. “You can create a decent sized water source and within a night or two night the bats have found it and then use will just keep increasing as other bats locate the source.”
But that’s not all! According to Taylor the work with the Mimbres River will be much more than just a place for bats to drink. “As a healthy river system, providing drinking and high-quality foraging habitat, it’s also like a migration highway for several species. So that’s really what we want to see, an overall healthier and more productive habitat for bats and other wildlife.”
And the rest of the ecosystem? Well, they’re not forgotten either. “Not only will it [the Mimbres River Project] help improve and maintain bat populations, but a whole suite of other animals that need water.” Resident and migratory water fowl and other species like the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog will have a fantastic new home while the bats get a place to get a drink. A happy ending to a thirsty story.
Written by Erin Zielger