Janet Hurley, 2011 Friends of IPM Award Winner
The first call came one afternoon about eight years ago, on an otherwise ordinary day.
“Janet, we think we have bats in our elementary school. What do we do?”
Bats. In her 2 years at Texas AgriLife as coordinator of school IPM, Janet Hurley had never run into bats before. But she said she would look into it.
That day in 2003 began a series of new requests, new collaborations and new workshopsâ€”over bats. After that call, Hurley began doing research on bats and going over to the school and inspecting areas that she had never inspected before. She was used to inspecting walls just above the floor and crevices under doors and along windows. Bats usually roost along the rooftop. So she had to climb up onto the roof to look at the gutters.
She discovered that a quarter of an inch gap behind the gutter above the kindergarten room was letting in families of bats.
“When you seal a building, you seal it to keep out mice and rats. Now you also have to seal up dime size holes in the roof,” Hurley says.
In the wild, bats are beneficial mammals. Their main diet consists of moths, so farmers battling worm pests are grateful for a nearby bat colony. Some farmers even keep bat houses on their property to attract bats to eat pests. In fact, Hurley says, most bats roost nearby agricultural fields. As urban life has slowly dripped into agricultural areas, bats are finding new warm, safe homes in schools and attics. Residents and school professionals, concerned about rabies and the distraction of having bats flying around in classrooms or hallways, don’t look kindly on a visiting colony of bats.
Hurley didn’t realize how extensive the bat problem was until she received a call from the state biologist with the Zoonotic Division of the Department of State Health Services in 2005. Partnered with the Division of Parks and Wildlife, the Zoonotic Division wanted to give a series of workshops in Austin on bats.
“I have since learned that bats are everywhere,” Hurley says. “From that program, we wrote our first management plan for bats.”
But the trainings didn’t stop after that collaboration. She continued joining Parks and Wildlife and other agencies for trainings. When she polled workshop attendees, about 90 percent of them confirmed they had seen bats in or around their buildings. Then, the sole state bat biologist left her job, leaving Hurley as one of the few “bat experts” in Texas.
To update some of the state publications, Hurley produced a booklet, Bat Control in Schools. Paired with a poster on rabies, the booklet made a splash at many of the state health agencies and at schools. It became of the leading documents in the state on identifying and managing bats in buildings. And Hurley had to retrain herself during her school IPM inspections.
“When I look for bats, I look up at the rooflines,” she says.
In the past few years, she has earned a new title: “Bat Lady.” Now, when school IPM coordinators find bats in their schools, they call Hurley. And she carries a string of tales with her to each new training.
In one school district, a colony of Mexican free-tail bats that resided under a bridge escaped the cold night air in the five schools that lay in a five-mile radius of the bridge. Six bats in that colony tested positive for rabies. In fact, the scare of rabies has increased the urgency of managing the bat populations in the schools.
“Sometimes bats don’t want to live under a bridge,” says Hurley. “They want to live in buildings because they’re warm. If the bat comes in and it’s warm, the bat is happy.”
In another district, a bat colony moved between an elementary school and the county courthouse. Hurley suggested building bat houses to give the bats an alternative shelter.
“We’ve got to live with them,” she says. “They’re beneficial; they’ll pollinate and eat insect pests. If bats realize there’s nowhere for them to get into a building, they’ll search until they find a place to roost.”
Hurley says that one of her greatest problems has been public relations: bats are a federally endangered and state protected species, but to school personnel, they are a health risk. Many of her challenges involve teaching school IPM coordinators how to remove the bats humanely so they can be tested for rabies by the state health department.
Someday, she hopes that some of the Master Naturalists will begin tracking bat species in Texas. Because bats typically eat agricultural pests, they are plentiful among the vast numbers of farms in Texas. Of the 47 bat species recorded in the country, 31 of them live in Texas.
“It was actually scary when I realized I could recognize each bat species without looking it up,” Hurley says.
But that’s why she’s Texas’s Bat Lady.