The Tennessee Valley Authority conducts a yearly count of the gray bat population in Nickajack Cave. (Photo: Staff)

Every night, tens of thousands of endangered gray bats emerge from Nickajack Cave, serving as a glimmer of hope for the mammal’s survival while many other bat species are experiencing the catastrophic effects of white-nose syndrome.

The Tennessee Valley Authority conducts a yearly count of the gray bat population in Nickajack Cave, and this year the group tallied over 72,000 gray bats, which is 2,000 more than the previous year but below the highest count of over 100,000.

The fluctuations are no cause for alarm, though, because gray bats frequently move from cave to cave, TVA Terrestrial Zoologist Liz Hamrick said.

“The good news from this is that even if our counts differ greatly, this particular species of gray bats seem to be avoiding white-nose syndrome, which isn’t the case for other bat species,” she said.

White-nose syndrome is a fungal disease that has been ravaging bat populations since it was discovered in 2007, and according to the National Wildlife Health Center, it has now spread to 32 states and killed more than 6 million bats.

This drastic impact on the overall bat population has brought to light how integral bats are in maintaining the checks and balances of nature.

Bat colonies consume literal tons of night-flying insects, which subsequently controls the population of pests that negatively affect crop production.

“There’s a bad stigma around bats, but all bat species are important in regulating insect populations that can be detrimental to crop production and overall human health,” Daniel Istvanko, Region 3 wildlife diversity survey manager for Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said.

There are numerous gray bat conservation programs and efforts, including TVA’s annual count at Nickajack Cave and a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency initiative, which aerially tracks the bats in order to better understand their migratory patterns.

In May 2018, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also funneled grants totaling about $1 million to combat the spread of white-nose syndrome.

Area residents can learn more online and Istvanko said one of the best ways to help gray bats is simply by spreading knowledge.

“I always ask people to spread awareness about bat conservation and white-nose syndrome,” Istvanko said. “If more people knew about these issues, they would be more knowledgeable of how to help.”

Logan Garrett is a contributing writer. He currently attends UTC where he is the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The University Echo. He is a communication major with a psychology and Spanish double minor. Logan is also an associate editor for UReCA, an undergraduate research publication journal. You can reach him at [email protected] or on twitter @LoganGarrett__.