Vile. Diseased. Aggressive. Evil, even.
The bat may be one of the most distrusted, misunderstood and understudied animals on the planet — an astonishing feat of human underachievement, considering bats account for 20 per cent of the world's mammal species populations, control our mosquito numbers and play an integral role in a balanced habitat.
With that in mind, if the Fairmont Whistler Golf Course gets its wish, there will be hundreds more flitting around their greens from dusk till dawn from now on.
"If you've ever worked out here in the morning or late afternoon, we're getting attacked by mosquitoes and black flies constantly," said course superintendent Dan Nash. "That is one reason we want the bats, and we do benefit from it, but personally I'm also the kind of person that wants to make this golf course one of the most natural-possible properties in Whistler."
On Halloween morning, Nash and the Fairmont Chateau Whistler's "Green Team" were in full holiday spirit as they donned Batman masks and headed over to the 18th green to install one of two new bat hotels high in the trees.
If everything goes as planned, each hotel will come to be occupied by a 300-member maternity colony: lactating mothers and their young. Precisely at dusk, the colony will sweep the course, feasting on up to 300,000 mosquito-sized insects every hour.
The Fairmont’s Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Certification requires participants to meet a number of criteria, such as water conservation and wildlife management. The course has previously opened up corridors so bears can pass through without having forced confrontation with golfers; an artificial marsh is the full-time home of a resident beaver; tree clippings are strategically piled up into so-named "rabbitats," which in turn bring in predators like coyotes and other animals to enrich the biodiversity of the golf course.
"I've been the superintendent here for 14 years, and that's been my utmost goal — to maintain this beautiful golf course, as well as co-exist with the animals that lived on it before it was built.
"When people walk onto the golf course I want them to walk away saying, 'that wasn't just a golf course; there was so much more to it.'"
Bob Brett, a research ecologist known for his work with the Whistler Biodiversity Project and founding president of Whistler Naturalists, was on hand for the installation of the bat hotels. He said their populations have endured a persistent loss of natural habitat in the valley over the past few decades, and hopes projects like this will catch on with other property owners to help maintain bat numbers in developed areas.
"There are obvious benefits from a human perspective; if you don't like biting insects bats are great — they play a vital ecological role in controlling the insect population. There are checks and balances throughout the natural system and if you take one element out of that you upset the whole ecological web."
He adds that bird species like jays and robins are doing fine in local forests, but species like bats require sloughing bark on big trees for their habitat, of which there are only two known but small pockets left in the area.
The Whistler Blackcomb Environmental Foundation and Community Foundation of Whistler are putting together a bat conservation project aimed at educating the public about how and why residents can help the valley bat populations grow.
"They're fascinating creatures," Brett says. "They live so long, they can fly and they can echo-locate. They have the same body structure as we do, yet here they are flying and echolocating!"
Brett's enthusiasm is rooted in the bat's appearance. Despite the appearance of traditional wings, bats in fact have only long, webbed fingers that act like wings. While many vertebrates have developed the ability to glide, the bat is one of only three known to achieve actual flight, next to birds and pterodactyls. Brett hopes the bat's remarkable characteristics will help residents override their misplaced fears, adding with a laugh that no bat has ever been attracted to, or entangled in, a person’s hair.
"Hopefully, once people learn more about bats it will lead to a lot of people putting bat houses in their back yards," Brett said. "And hopefully they'll be a little more accommodating of bats if they do end up living in their houses… As we develop the program we will be able to help homeowners deal with that so that housing values are not reduced and we don't lose the bats either."
The enclosed bat hotels at the golf course measure just three-feet tall and two-feet wide, have a shallow depth to maximize heat retention and are made of coarse wood easy for bats to clutch. They're ideal for the valley's six smaller species of brown bats, weighing roughly five grams each. Three larger species, also brown, weigh between 15 and 20 grams.
Fairmont crews will monitor the hotels for occupancy, and once confirmed will monitor the bats' health. Bats in eastern sections of North America are dying by the millions, as an invasive fungus takes hold. White nose syndrome, so named for where the fungus appears, has not been found in British Columbia, but measures are in place with bat biologists to keep their handling of bats sterile. Windfarms have also had an unexpected but significant impact on bat populations worldwide.
Brett says no significant monitoring project for white nose has occurred in the province due to natural difficulty in locating bat colonies. The hotels at the golf course will hopefully provide biologists one measure of monitoring the situation."
"The Fairmont is doing a great job with habitat enhancement on their course," Brett says. "One of the reasons we want maternity colonies in Whistler is because it can be the start of monitoring them. If we notice a fall off in numbers it will help us react.
"In the meantime in Whistler, the main thing is habitat."