Flathead River Valley – Where The Wild Things Are

The stars were so bright they seemed to be intently watching us as we took delicate measurements of the bat’s wings and ears.

“Anything below about 10 degrees Celsius and it becomes hard for the bats to stay warm at night”, explained Dr. Cori Lausen, one of North America’s foremost bat research specialists.

I joined a team of 15 bat researchers in the lower Flathead Basin on the 3rd annual BioBlitz research expedition, as Sierra Club BC’s Flathead outreach coordinator. I had some ecology field work experience and I was eager to give hands-on help with setting up the giant mist nets that capture the bats and try my hand at staying up all night with the nocturnal biologists.

River cave

Bat research team setting up intricate mist nets over a river cave. Photo: Mark Worthing

For an area as biodiverse as the Serengeti, these biological research expeditions provide foundational scientific knowledge about the areas ecological functions, species and unique flora and fauna. Each year we expand our biological awareness of the importance of protecting this area.

“This is really the only place left in southern British Columbia that has not been inventoried for bats. It’s been a black hole with everybody trying to guess what’s there,” said Lausen, who had returned to the Flathead to compete baseline surveys that she had started last year.

Hoary bat

Rare find of the Hoary Bat, the largest in Canada. Photo: Mark Worthing

On one evening as researchers walked in hip-waders up Rose Canyon creek they were ecstatic to find Canada’s largest bat, the Haory bat in the net.  With an average wingspan of 40cm, and frosted blonde and brown fur, the Hoary bat had our team of midnight marauders captivated.  While this year’s BioBlitz focused entirely on bats, anyone spending time in the Flathead will find it hard to focus on just one species. The Crown of The Continent region, which includes the Flathead, is the confluence of North America’s major biomes; inland rainforest, grasslands-plains, arctic boreal, and coastal temperate forest; with both low elevation and alpine elevations. It truly is one of the most important and keystone landscapes in North America, as it is the habitat of most of the mega-fauna species on the continent, and is the last remaining low-elevation valley on the 49th parallel that has not been permanently settled by humans or completely developed.

Dr Cori Lausen

Dr. Cori Lausen and team plan site locations for netting. Photo: Mark Worthing

I stopped on our drive out of the Flathead in Harvey Pass to photograph the wild onion and wild raspberry hedges and my heart sank as massive industrial trucks carrying quarried chunks of stone out to international markets rolled by. The western side of the Flathead River Valley has vast, new cut blocks lined almost all the way to the American boarder. These forests, once older late succession ecosystems were the homes of Lynx, as they prey on snowshoe hare and teach their young how to hunt.

In the autumn the Snowshoe hare’s fur begins to change to its white, winter camouflage and I am ever more thankful for the efforts of the Flathead Wild Conservation community.

After the success and excitement of the Bioblitz our coalition team members met in the Upper Elk Lake Parks at the northern reaches of our proposed Wildlife Management Area, to strategize our campaign objectives moving forward.  We are very excited to launch our new interactive and integrated website in August, which helps us stay better connected with supporters, fundraise and share content and information about the Flathead to new citizens. The final baseline report from the bat survey will be submitted in October, and coalition partners in the Flathead continue to engage in water quality monitoring and on-the-ground campaigning in local communities.

Bat Research Team

2014 BioBlitz team. Photo: Mark Worthing

Our outreach teams have been busily getting the word out to people at the Calgary Stampede, Fernie Mountain Biking events, Vancouver Folk Music Festivals, and Victoria Farmers Markets as well as many other public events across BC, Alberta and Montana.  The widespread diversity of support for the Flathead Wild campaign is overwhelming and the common awareness of the importance of biodiversity and ecosystem connectivity in the area is the foundation for establishing a National Park.  Even the stars know we need to protect it and connect it.