Kodiak marks National Wildlife Refuge Week

The little brown bat is an oft-overlooked species of mammal that resides in the area protected by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.

Kodiak is celebrating National Wildlife Refuge Week to highlight the federally protected lands that make up two-thirds of the island, as well as parts of Afognak and Ban Islands. 

National Wildlife Refuge week began on Sunday and runs through Saturday. This week, the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge Center is posting fun wildlife activities and opportunities for community members to win prizes on its Facebook page

“It’s a great way for us to connect with the community,” said Park Ranger Danielle Butt, who works at the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. “A lot of people living in Kodiak don’t know about the refuge because they can’t get to it.”

Although not as well-known as the National Park system, the National Wildlife Refuge system encompasses about 90 million acres of land, with 77 million of those in Alaska, Butt said. 

Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941, after ethical hunters and bear guides lobbied the government to conserve and protect the island’s brown bears, whose numbers had been decreasing. 

To help with the refuge’s mission of protecting bears and salmon, and ensuring compatible management of wildlife, the refuge conducts many research and outreach activities throughout the year. 

Biologists conduct bear population surveys once a year in cooperation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Marine bird breeding surveys are done two times per year. 

The refuge also does invasive species removal, which includes orange hawkweed and creeping buttercup and tall buttercup — plants that displace the native vegetation and alter the habitat, impacting bears and other wildlife. 

“One of the biggest environmental concerns facing the habitat of Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge is the infestation and spread of invasive species,” Butt wrote in an email. “The refuge focuses on the few species that do have infestations on refuge lands, infestations on adjacent lands and infestations with a high probability of being transferred to the refuge.”

The refuge also works to educate the community about Kodiak’s fauna, which includes the brown bear, red fox, ermine, river otter and the oft-forgotten little brown bat. 

Butt said that a lot of attention is given to the bears, foxes and other “charismatic” animals, while the little brown bat often goes “under the radar.”

Much is unknown about the island’s tiniest mammal, which weighs just 9 grams. 

A common misconception about bats is that they are blind. While they do have sight, they rely primarily on echolocation to locate prey. 

Although bats tend to have a bad reputation for spreading disease, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic, they play an important role in nature: eating mosquitoes and other biting insects. 

Kodiak’s little brown bats can be challenging to study and track, in part because of their size and finding a tracking device that is small enough and long-lasting.

“It’s difficult to find something small that works long enough to figure out where they are going,” Butt said. 

Learning about Kodiak’s bat species may be more important now than ever because of white nose syndrome, a fungal infection that has decimated little brown bat numbers in the Lower 48. 

The first case of the fungal infection hit Washington state in 2016, helping spark more interest in research on the mammal in Alaska. 

White nose syndrome causes bats to wake up from their sleep more often while hibernating, causing them to lose the energy they need to survive winter. 

“If they are consistently waking up, they lose too much energy and end up dying,” Butt said. 

Although no cases of white nose syndrome have been recorded in Alaska, researchers still do not know where these bats travel to hibernate during the winter, which is when they tend to get the infection. 

Butt said the refuge may start getting involved in little brown bat research in the near future. 

 Meanwhile, to help increase awareness about the bat, the refuge center is giving away a bat box, similar to a birdhouse but built specifically for bats. 

To register for the drawing for a bat house, participants can comment on Facebook or send the refuge center a message simply saying they want to enter into the drawing. 

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