EAU CLAIRE - When members of Kristina Novek's environmental science class at Chippewa Valley Technical College in River Falls brainstormed ideas for a class project, helping save an endangered species did not immediately come to mind. After all, weren't endangered species a problem in someone else's backyard?
"Then someone mentioned Crystal Cave was doing bat research," said Aaron Larson, a 2012 Elmwood High School graduate who grew up about 5 miles from the iconic tourist attraction in rural Spring Valley.
Indeed, Crystal Cave has partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of California Santa Cruz on education and research projects related to species of bats listed as "threatened" - a step short of being endangered. A fungal disease called white nose syndrome has dramatically reduced bat populations in Wisconsin since 2014, according to the DNR.
The class decided to do its part by installing four bat houses around River Falls, though away from residential areas. Students installed the houses on 12-foot poles on Wednesday, May 9.
"It's a really good project to address the needs of a local threatened species," Larson said.
"The northern long-eared bat is one of the more prominent species that helps control the population of small insects," said Martin Wolf, a student from River Falls. "Mosquitoes are one of their primary food sources."
Novek says she requires each of her environmental science classes to do a course-related community service project. Once they chose helping the local bat population, they began research on what they could do.
"They researched different kinds of bat houses and ordered some kits," Novek said. "A couple of them went to the River Falls City Council to ask for permission to place the houses on city property."
"They thought it was a great idea," Wolf said. "They saw it as a way to help control the insect population in the parks. But they had some concerns about residences being affected."
The locations chosen were on a far end of Glen Park away from residences, near the city compost site behind the bus garages, on the CVTC campus, and at Novek's residence.
Zach Lubich of Prescott was one of the students who helped assemble the houses from the kits.
"The dark color helps keep them warmer; they have scratch marks they can cling to; and they are tight so the bats can huddle together to keep warm," Lubich said.
"Bats need a place to go when they're hibernating," said Jason Aune, a 2016 Baldwin-Woodville High School graduate now living in Hammond. "These houses can each house up to 200 bats, and we have four of them."
Aune added that it will probably take some time for bats to discover them and use them regularly. "But they come back to where they've been before," he said.
The project was just the right size of the small class of six students. Each took on different tasks, including holding a bake sale to raise funds. Larson was the overall coordinator of the entirely student-run project.
"It didn't take a whole lot of time and everyone pulled their weight," Larson said.