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A disease that has wiped out bat colonies in other regions of the United States has made its way to the Bay Area, ripping through local populations of nature's most efficient mosquito-killers.
Some of Wisconsin's most common bat populations, such as big brown and little brown bats and northern long-eared bats, have fallen prey to white-nose syndrome, a fungus that has killed up to 100 percent of some bat populations. That includes a once-thriving colony of small brown bats that used to reside at the Department of Natural Resources Les Voight fish hatchery between Washburn and Bayfield.
"There used to be a population there that ranged anywhere from 500 to 600," said Brian Hebringa, the district biologist for the Washburn district of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. "That was back in the 2014 and 2015, just before white-face syndrome likely got here. We've seen a drastic decline in the population, to the point that we have now lost about 98 percent. This year we only detected a handful of bats there."
The loss of bats as a natural wonder, swooping and chittering across Northwoods skies every summer, is just one part of the tragedy. Each bat has the capacity to eat up to 1,000 mosquitos per hour, the equivalent of about $3.7 billion in insect control every year in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The fungus that causes white-nose syndrome is a cold weather organism. It is particularly deadly in the north because it prefers cool, damp environments, closely matching the sheltered locations where bats go to hibernate, said Hebringa. The fungus grows on the exposed skin of the face and wings and irritates the bats, which awake to clean the fungus away. This is repeated over the course of the winter, causing the bats to consume their limited fat stores. They eventually exhaust their reserves and starve to death.
In Northern Wisconsin, bats hibernate in the abandoned mines in the Hurley area; they also live in rock crevasses near Morgan Falls and St. Peter's Dome. Large
hollows in trees are often favored, as are the sea caves near Meyer's Beach. Big and and little brown bats are also fond of human-made structures, happily sleeping through the winter in attics, in garages, sheds and behind siding.
Some bats cluster close together to conserve body heat, creating ideal conditions for spreading the fungus.
The bat die-off is taking place throughout its range in northern Wisconsin, including the Apostle Islands. According to Katy Goodwin, co-investigator for the National Park Service Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network's bat monitoring program, the decline in bat numbers in the National Lakeshore is most likely caused by white-nose.
For other more visible and cherished creatures, such losses would have set off alarm bells of shock and concern in the general public. Thus far, likely owing to their reputation as creepy denizens of the dark, the bat holocaust has barely been noticed.
"They are definitely not one of the more charismatic fauna like wolves or deer," said Al Kirschbaum, a National Park Service remote sensing specialist, whose acoustic data has helped document the decline of bats on the islands. "They don't quite get the amount of press as some of those. They just aren't as visible and engaging as people watching wolves or seeing moose or deer around."
Kirschbaum and Goodwin use strategically placed recording instruments to identify species and numbers of bats based on their characteristic vocalizations. Their counts have been going on since 2016, just as white-nose was spreading in the area.
"We don't have a complete picture, but we did see the decline in those first couple of years," she said.
Goodwin says there is much research being done to see if it is possible to halt the spread of white-nose syndrome.
The disease may have been introduced from China or other areas in the Far East by the very people who likely enjoy them the most: cavers and hikers who could have brought the fungus spores back to the United States on their boots. Many public and private caves now require those who enter to sanitize their boots before entering to prevent the spread of the disease.
"There is a lot of effort being put into solving the problem. I guess I am optimistic that they will have some workable ideas," Goodwin said.
Wade Cashman's appearance exudes old-school cowboy — from 10-gallon hat to boots — and his behavior backs it up. The son of a rancher, he adheres to the old-fashioned ethos of reusing, repairing and recycling, practices he puts to use at his business, Cashman Custom Leather, in Bayfield.
Cashman, 53, has cowboy "street cred," growing up on a Minnesota horse and cattle ranch, where he learned to make and restore leather items and repair machinery because few people in the area could. He said he made a lot of mistakes while learning leatherwork from books and a single high school class, and ended up throwing away a lot of expensive leather — or more often using it himself.
Leaving the ranch behind, Cashman became a truck driver. But a back injury from a motorbike crash ended his successful career on the road, and he needed to find something else to do with his time. Thus he returned to school to learn computers and business skills, and enrolled in a yearlong program in Oklahoma to learn how to make leather boots and saddles.
Cashman said he thought that if he learned how to make them, he'd learn how to repair them — that was his goal.
Cashman moved to the Bayfield Peninsula in 2013 and put his leathermaking and repair skills to work. Recently he opened a storefront at 117 S. First St. in Bayfield, where he showcases his saddles and boots, as well as smaller items such as knife sheaths, gun holsters, handbags and belts.
Although Cashman's custom-made saddles and boots show loving attention to artistry and detail, his heart lies in repairing leather items and machinery to keep them out of the land fill.
Some of his business equipment is about 100 years old and still going strong, he said, and he doubts newer equipment made today will fare as well a century from now.
"Our ancestors were better green than we ever will be because everything was reused and made to last," he said.
Cashman also buys only quality leather — usually made in America, although it's more expensive. Each of his saddles represents an investment of more than 80 hours of labor, plus more than $1,000 in materials. The cost can't compare with the $600 to $800 price tags on brand-new saddles out of Mexico, but Cashman swears his work will last a long time and backs it up by promising to make repairs should things go wrong.
And Cashman extends just as much time and attention to repairing leatherwork, pointing to a pair of boots submitted for repairs from Minnesota. Other places may repair boots, he said, but they just repair them — they may not use original leather soles and heels on the boots and shine them up.
Cashman, who also works as a mechanic at Mt. Ashwabay, hopes his custom leather business will become his full-time job. He's cultivating an Internet-based clientele and making items for next year's tourist season.
For more information, visit facebook.com/cashmanleather. Appointments can be made at 763-213-4596.
A Fifield woman has become a somewhat unwilling advocate for cell phone driving bans after she learned the hard way that the state already bans phones — sort of.
Laura Stroud was on her way to Washburn from her Fifield home when she saw the flashing blue lights in her rearview mirror.
She had just come through the construction zone on Highway 13 near the roundabout with Highway 2 in Bayfield County, and thought the sheriff's deputy had an emergency ahead of her so she pulled off the road.
The deputy pulled off too.
She couldn't imagine what she had done wrong until the officer told her that it is illegal in Wisconsin to do what she had done: use a cell phone in a construction zone. Stroud had no idea it was illegal, and she apparently isn't alone. The deputy told her she was the third person he had stopped that day who was unaware of the law.
Then he gave her the ticket.
What Stroud found out the hard way is that in Wisconsin, talking on a cell phone or operating any kind of a handheld mobile isn't specifically banned, but the state considers it inattentive driving in a construction zone, punishable by a $162.70 fine for a first offense and four demerit points on a driver's record. The fine is $200.50 for a second offense.
Although Stroud was chagrined and embarrassed to receive the ticket, she rapidly changed from being an inadvertent lawbreaker to a strong supporter of the ban.
"At first I felt bad, because it was kind of stupid. I always try to dot the I's and cross the T's," she said. "This is a law and I wish I had known about it."
Stroud said when she thought about it, it made perfect sense — particularly in light of a construction worker who recently was critically injured when hit by an SUV in Ashland.
"You always need to be paying attention to everything going on in a construction zone," she said. "I think it's a good idea; I don't disagree
with it at all. Going forward, the only responsible thing I can do is not talk on the phone in a construction zone.
Bayfield County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Dan Clark said the interpretation of the inattentive driving statute is meant to protect both motorists like Stroud and highway construction workers.
"It is certainly a safety issue especially in a construction zone, where there are so many other stimuli hitting the driver. Adding one more distraction was determined to be unsafe," he said.
The need for that protection was made abundantly clear on Aug. 26 , when 43-year-old Vickie Williams of Odanah, a road construction flagger for Northwoods Paving of Ashland, was hit by the SUV on Sanborn Avenue — one of the average of nearly 2,000 work-zone crashes in the state every year, according to the Department of Transportation.
Clark said state has been ticketing cellphone drivers in work zones since 2015, when the measure was introduced with a good deal of publicity.
"At a lot of construction zones, there will be signboards that tell you to turn off your cell phones," he said.
Clark said the county issued three citations for using phones in construction zones last year, and deputies already have written six this year, including the three issued on the day Stroud was ticketed.
Several Wisconsin municipalities have adopted the state's regulations for construction zones to take effect throughout their communities. Wausau, Marshfield, Stevens Point and Rhinelander all have bans on hand-operated cell phones, GPS units and other devices unless they are operated in a voice-activated or hands-free fashion.
Stroud said she just wishes that the work-zone ban was as actively promoted as the "Click it or ticket" seatbelt or "Drive sober or get pulled over" campaigns.
"When I got pulled over, I had no idea it was against the law. Now that I know, absolutely, it makes sense," she said. "People need to have it put in front of them — this is important, and you need to pay attention or there will be consequences."