Jill Robinson

HAT bat project encourages positive relationships with humans

In the wild, Jill Robinson typically finds bats roosting in large dead or dying trees with hollow middles and insect-riddled wood.

In the wild, Jill Robinson typically finds bats roosting in large dead or dying trees with hollow middles, flaking bark and insect-riddled wood.

But in Victoria and Esquimalt, such trees are often removed for safety or aesthetic reasons, prompting Robinson and her team with Habitat Acquisition Trust (HAT) to put on their thinking caps and get creative.

In an effort to create more habitat for bats, more than 130 bat boxes (artificial roosting habitat) have been set up throughout the Capital Regional District, but only three of those are in Victoria/Esquimalt with private landowners.

The organization, however, has received numerous reports of bats in buildings (such as under siding), and natural roost sites within Victoria, which is why its members are working with local pest controllers and real estate agents to build awareness about the critters living in urban areas and learn more about their roost sites.

“The bat project is one of the most recent ones we’ve put a lot of energy into lately, especially because of the white nose fungus that hit our region in the last six months,” said Robinson, the executive director of HAT, noting the deadly fungal disease was detected just east of Seattle in March 2016, increasing the urgency to understand bat populations in B.C.

The syndrome is estimated to have killed more than six million bats since it was first discovered in eastern North America a decade ago.

“We’re trying to encourage people in the neighbourhood to really develop more of a positive relationship with bats and protect and enhance habitat for bats in our area.”

According to the HAT website, Vancouver Island has 10 known species of bats, and less than one in 1,000 carries rabies. Little is still known about their habits and population, but since the community bat program started in 2014, at least 25 per cent of the boxes are being used by the furry winged critters and also provide a way to study their behaviour.

Throughout the summer, nearly 100 volunteers help out with bat counts at local roosting sites, collecting data on bat populations. The bat program is one of a number of core programs Robinson said are key to the ongoing success of HAT — a non-profit regional land trust and registered charity that conserves nature on south Vancouver Island — and will be celebrating its 20th birthday this year.

Although the group often spends the bulk of its time in natural areas, last year HAT members spent much time in Victoria and Esquimalt, focusing on stewardship with private landowners and looking for ways to improve the city’s urban forests.

A large part of the work is done with an army of volunteers who help with restoration events, such as pulling evasive weeds, and the species at risk programs that include western painted turtles, sharp-tailed snakes, western screech owls, and amphibians.

At the core of HAT are five staff members, three of whom are full time. During the last three years, the office has changed from 75 per cent men to 100 per cent women.

“For me, I love it because it’s a great combination of using my training in wildlife biology and conservation and my strong interest in working with community members. It’s not all about the land, but mostly about working with people,” said Robinson, who has a masters degree in wildlife biology and has noticed a general upward trend of women in conservation.

“I can’t really say why that would be, but it’s pretty neat taking a real leadership role and just developing interest in land conservation…We’re constantly shifting the approach that we take to conservation and working with community members as we learn more.”

HAT’s 20th birthday nature fundraiser takes place Tuesday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at Glenrosa Farm Restaurant (5447 Rocky Point Rd. in Metchosin). The event includes live music, a silent auction and games for a cause. For tickets call 250-995-2428.