Drought takes toll on Caverns

September 3, 2011 • Local News

In this photo provided by National Park Service, bats exit the natural cave entrance in Carlsbad Caverns National Park. (Courtesy Photo/Peter Jones)

Emily Russo Miller
Record Staff Writer

Usually some 400,000 bats reside in Carlsbad Caverns National Park each summer, but those numbers have dwindled this year because of the drought, experts say.

Only a “couple thousand bats” were counted in the caves this summer, which is when bat numbers peak since the pups are born in June, Division Chief of Interpretation and Education Marie Marek said in an interview Friday.

Marek added that the drought conditions, coupled with a wildfire earlier this summer that burned 8,200 acres of vegetation in the park very close to the natural cave entrance that the bats fly out of each night, has crippled the bats’ main food sources: moths and insects.

“It’s down to the ash here,” she said. “The fire just really devastated the vegetation, and that’s a direct result of the drought.”

The bat cave area in Carlsbad Cavern provides important habitat for 17 species of bats, including a large colony of Brazilian (Mexican) free-tailed bats, as a place to give birth and raise young, as well as a stopover for migrating bats, according to the park’s website.

Marek estimates maybe 10,000 bats appeared in August, which has disappointed tourists hoping to see spectacular evening outflights of bats exiting the cavern in search of food.

“It’s not the big, swirling cloud of bats as usual, so visitors are disappointed,” Marek said, adding that bats may be migrating farther south or to Texas instead of staying at the caverns. “But that’s nature, and this is the bats’ coping mechanism.”

It remains a mystery how bats knew to stay clear of Carlsbad Caverns this year, Marek added. But she said this is not the first time Carlsbad Caverns experienced record low numbers of the mammals.

“Under the cavern’s first superintendent, Col. Tom Boles, it was a very dry year,” she said. “He wrote about it in his daily journals.”

Most of the bats that did live in the cave for the summer will begin migrating south to Mexico near the end of October, Marek said.

She remains confident that they will return in great numbers next year.

She said, “If we get enough moisture this winter and rain in the spring, they’ll be back.”

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