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Labs Gone Batty
By Regan Michelle White

You may dream of teaching your Lab to retrieve many things: ducks, balls, bumpers or even your car keys. But for Ed Arnett of Austin, TX the name of the game was to teach his Chocolate Labs, Sage and Luna to find bat carcasses for research on behalf of Bat Conservation International (BCI) and the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative (BWEC).

Since the 1970’s, wind has been harnessed as a more environmentally friendly energy option. And while wind energy generates electricity without many of the environmental drawbacks associated with other energy sources (air and water pollution and mercury and greenhouse gas emissions), the direct and indirect local impacts of wind plants on birds and bats continues to be an issue. Since the inception of wind energy, turbines have undergone many changes and researchers have endeavored to diligently keep pace with an accurate record of the turbines’ effects on bird and bat populations. Usually birds are the biggest issue, with the most notorious turbine avian problem showcased in Altamont, CA. Bat mortality on the other hand, has been occurring all along but at a lower frequency. The environmental focus didn’t shift from bird to bat mortality until an important study in 2003.

In 2003, with the construction of the 66 megawatt Mountaineer wind power production farm on Backbone Ridge near Thomas, West Virginia a two-month long study was conducted both there and at a farm in Buffalo Mountain, Tennessee to determine the wind farms’ impact on bird habitats in the area. What the study found was a surprisingly massive rise in bat fatalities. Ed Arnett explains that, “up to that point, a normal find in most non-forested sites was less than two bat kills per turbine. Those numbers of course are predicated on the sampling effort, as bat mortality had not been extensively researched until 2003. The study in 2003 found evidence of massive bat kills: 48 bats per turbine in West Virginia and 28 bats per turbine in Tennessee for a total of over 2,000 bat kills during that two month period of research.” The findings were a surprise and a definite call to action.

In response, the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative (BWEC) was founded by Bat Conservation International (BCI), the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy (NREL) with the explicit mission to develop and coordinate research opportunities to address issues and produce solutions surrounding wind energy development and the mortality of bats. This is where Ed Arnett and his Batdogs come in.

Ed joined BCI this past May to coordinate the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative. Working on his PhD in Forest Ecology at Oregon State University, Ed admits that he has always been fascinated by bats saying, “I have always been intrigued by bats both because of their unique place in ecosystems and because they are nighttime flying mammals. My work with bats began in 1995 when I worked as a research biologist for the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company where I started a lot of studies on bats and forest habitat ecology which naturally led into my dissertation research.” And he’s been a high-flying fan ever since.

Ed admits that in the beginning of the BWEC project there were many unknowns. “When we started the project little was known about why wind turbines were killing bats. We began by making a list of priorities, generated the money needed for our field research and then this past summer I led the research team for a 6-week intensive study at the Mountaineer wind farm in West Virginia and a site in Meyersdale, Pennsylvania. Our key objectives were to improve bat carcass searches and carcass search protocols.” While assessing the need to improve search efficiency it didn’t take long for the idea of using dogs to come up. Ed, a Chocolate Lab owner, avid hunter and hunting dog trainer says, “I’ve used my retrievers before to find duck nests and Sand Hill Crane nests for research purposes. Lots of professional biologists use dogs to sniff out lots of different things.” So why not bats?

BCI was in contact with one individual to provide a bat-sniffing dog, but when that contract didn’t work out Ed offered two of his own dogs to do the work – Sage and Luna. For six weeks, from July 31st to September 12th, two-year-old Sage and three-year-old Luna worked alongside Ed and a whole host of researchers to attempt to iron out some pieces of the murky bat mortality puzzle.

They took to the task like true batdog superheroes, learning how to find dead bats in a mere week’s time. Ed explains that, “I trained them to find dead bats the same way that you would train a dog to find anything – through positive reinforcement. I showed them exactly what I wanted and rewarded them when they succeeded. I placed a sample of bats in the field and when they would come close to a bat carcass I would give them a sit whistle, give them a treat and then give them a retrieving dummy. We trained for 4-5 days with different species of bats that they were likely to find in the fields we were studying. They really picked up on it fast. Literally I trained them for five days and then we started our research trials. They found 11 out of 12 bats in our very first trial. That’s pretty amazing.”

But those five days of training were not all smooth sailing. Ed chuckles that, “I had a lot of people contact me afterwards and ask me how I got my dogs to retrieve the bats without eating them and with Sage that was a problem. Neither Sage nor Luna is the type that would consume their find, but Sage definitely wanted to pick the bats up. You have to walk a fine line. I wanted them to find the bats, but I didn’t want them to pick them up and I had to avoid giving any negative reinforcement. For two days Sage wouldn’t go near the bats after I told him “NO” when picking them up. I had to convince him that it was positive to find them, just not to pick them up. My advice to others is that if the dog is going to pick it up, command them to hold it, which is a standard force fetch command. With the hold the dog will hold it still and not mangle it.”

And there was another fine line that had to be walked: the transect research lines. Ed explains that in these studies, the fields are walked for carcasses following transect lines that run North-South. He says, “If you’re a human researcher you walk these transect lines and of course, look for dead bats. Dogs however have to quarter back and forth. Hunting dogs are trained to quarter to 25-30 meters and the research transect lines are only 10 meters across so the dogs had to be trained on a shorter search distance. I taught them to do so by having them walk out the five meters, I’d sit them with a whistle and then give them a hand cast to come back and thus taught them how to quarter in a smaller area.”

Ed’s training efforts certainly paid off in the field. He says that, “We of course knew that the dogs were going to find more bats than the humans did, but it was important to see how much more efficient they were, how practical their application is and if their bat finds differ in general location from the bats that humans tend to find.” Generally speaking, Sage and Luna found two to four times more bats than the humans did. Statistically speaking, it’s a pretty big win. Numbers for bat finds were determined by a crew member who would place bats randomly in the field at locations that only that crew member was aware of in order to test the searchers – both human and Lab. If Ed and the dogs ran across the planted bats they’d leave them there - likewise for the human searchers. At the end of a run they’d compare numbers to see who found what.

By the end of the six weeks of research at Mountaineer and Meyersdale, it was clear that Sage and Luna were the superior seekers. At Mountaineer the Labs found 32 of the 45 or 71% of all placed bats while the humans found 19 of the 45 or 42%. At Meyersdale the Labs found 42 of the 52 or 81% of all placed bats while humans found only 6 of the 52 bats for a paltry 12% recovery. Ed accounts for the success rates between each site by the difference in terrain. “The reason Luna and Sage were so unbelievably efficient at the Meyersdale location was probably due to the habitat. There was a lot more grass that was able to hold the scent for the dogs, and conversely obscure vision for human searchers and it was just a much better location for scenting.

As for results, much was accomplished with still much left to do. Ed explains that, “The research showed that yes, dogs can readily find bats and have utility in searches and other types of search efforts. I want to test that under different habitat conditions and we will be conducting more experiments this spring. Our results will hopefully be published in a scientific journal this year so that others can see our information and use it to their advantage.” And as he further details, the issue with using dogs is really their broad scale application. “Some farms have 300-400 turbines and it’s not likely that we’ll have a small army of dogs and handlers.” He adds with a laugh, “but you never know!”

Dogs have definitely proven to be an absolute asset in recovery research on small wind farms however and the results of this summer’s search have helped the BWEC in other aspects of their studies. For example, if you look at the distribution for the distance from the turbines that bats are found for both dogs and humans you can determine if what the humans are finding is an adequate rule of thumb. In other words, dogs can serve as an verification tool. Along these lines, Ed explains a bit of how Sage and Luna are helping researchers understand the distribution of their finds: “If you take a turbine plot and break it into quadrants, humans tend to find bats equally in each quadrant – about 25% in each quadrant. The dogs also found bats pretty equally across quadrants. We are able to use the dogs to calibrate our numbers and better understand our human results.”

And as for the bats, there is a lot of speculation over what makes them seem to go simply batty over wind turbines. Ed outlines a number of different hypotheses. One is that such high numbers are found in these locations in Tennessee, West Virginia and Pennsylvania because these are primarily forested ridge tops along the Appalachian Mountains and it is hypothesized that the bats are migrating up and down the mountain regions. There is also a roost attraction hypothesis that asserts that the turbines may stand out as an attractive roosting space for a bat. Others profess that the bats are attracted to the sounds coming out of the turbines themselves and perhaps the very swoosh of the blades. And of course, it may just be a random event and these are just bat feeding areas.

As Ed points out, this fatal attraction is one that currently has scientists stumped. He says, “From my own observation it is clear that certainly some of these bats are local bats that are feeding in these forested areas. However, it also seems that they have a definite interest and attraction to the turbines themselves. You would think that with their advanced sonar systems that can detect the smallest minutiae they would be able to pick up a huge blade slicing through the air at 100 miles per hour but they seem to be having trouble with that.” It is speculated that something about the turbines may have a jamming effect on their sonar but scientists still don’t really understand why they can’t pick it up. Ed adds that, “The most challenging part is that it is hard to study bats: not only do they fly, but they fly at night and their small stature makes tagging and retrieval virtually impossible. Thus not much is known about their migration habits or even about some of their basic ecology.”

All the same, Ed, Sage and Luna are committed to finding better protection for these mysterious little mammals and this summer’s BWEC study at Mountaineer and Meyersdale put researchers one step closer to some answers. In terms of his dogs, Ed was most surprised by how fast they picked it all up. “I had no question they could be trained to do it but I am still just amazed by how quickly they learned it all. Literally in five days we were doing a survey.” In terms of challenges Ed remarks that, “The greatest challenge was making sure that I wasn’t missing each dog’s cue to me that they were on a bat because they were really easy to miss.

Normally when you are searching in these studies you are watching the ground. For me I had to watch my dogs intently because each dog gave different cues. Luna would get really excited and wag her tail a lot when she was on a rodent but when she smelled a bat she laid her ears back and acted concerned almost and sometimes only put her nose on it very quickly. Sage however was much more deliberate and he stayed on it for a while.” Ed is still awed to recall their precise findings, saying, “Luna found a piece of a bat wing tip while we were out in the field. It was just a minute piece of a wing. I mean that’s pretty good. But you have to pay attention. We might have missed that because she might have just quickly touched her nose to it for a second and then moved on. You’re not searching as a human observer normally would.”

With five to six plots to sniff over a day, the environment was also a challenging factor. “They’d often get overheated and you could tell they were having a hard time. We were out in the field for 6-8 hours every day but I would alternate between dogs so they would each be fresh.” And being a Lab certainly helped. Ed lovingly adds that, “They are just classic Labs – happy all the time and they just love to work and love to retrieve. They’re my hunting dogs, my pets and now my bat retrievers.” And they aren’t the only Labs in Ed’s household.

Ed founded Brown Dog Retrievers Kennel, starting their stud program in 2000 and their puppy program in 2002 with a commitment to providing well-bred, well-trained Chocolate Labradors as hunting dogs, field competitors and family companions. Luna was purchased from a professional trainer and Sage was the result of Ed’s very first litter between his AKC Master National Qualifier Rip and his dam Chili. Of the five litters produced at Brown Dog Retrievers, Luna, when not rooting out birds or bats has found the time to whelp three of them and has proven as fantastic a mother as she is a researcher.

The night sky is full of bats thanking both Luna and Sage for their assistance in the research. Ed reminds us that while renewable energy is a great thing, there is also no such thing as a free lunch. He stresses that, “People need to know that these things can cause problems but that there are people – and at the moment two Labradors –out there who are committed to finding solutions.”

For more information on Bat Conservation International and/or the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative visit

For more information on Brown Dog Retrievers visit

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