Many environmentalists see golf courses as the enemy: Their manicured landscapes often replace natural habitat, excessive irrigation causes runoff, and a heavy use of pesticides and chemicals damages ecosystems. But wildlife ecologist Kevina Vulinec of Delaware State University in Dover had a different take: "I was driving past a golf course and I thought, 'Wow, those forest patches look like good habitat for foraging and commuting bats!' "
Her curiosity piqued, Vulinec set out to see if her hunch was accurate. This week, at the Ecological Society of America's (ESA's) annual meeting in Austin, she reported that golf courses can, indeed, create a "win-win" situation for both winged and bipedal mammals. The courses serve as a potential refuge and buffet for the nocturnal bats while providing groundskeepers with a free insect-control service.
Vulinec's research was funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Wildlife Links Program, which investigates golf's relationship with surrounding wildlife. Although not a golfer herself, Vulinec and her team of graduate students spent 22 nights at five golf courses in the Delaware-Maryland area, deploying mist nets to capture species, as well as ultrasonic acoustic detectors to measure bat activity in each one of five, distinct "microhabitats" on the course.
They found that bats were most likely to visit ponds serving as water hazards on the individual holes as well as the parklike areas bordering the fairways. The mosquito-rich and forest-edged environment is similar to what bats prefer in the wild, Vulinec says. And because local bat populations are threatened by habitat destruction and the fatal pandemic, White-nose syndrome, she says, golf courses could provided an important refuge.
"[This study] seems like a very good idea, something that fits into that whole area of urban wildlife ecology," says Ed Arnett, director of programs at the nonprofit Bat Conservation International in Austin and co-organizer of the ESA session. "It lays the groundwork for other efforts to look at the importance of golf courses and other types of human [and wildlife] interface habitats like green belts—where we generally know very little about."
Vulinec and her team are now collecting information on insect activity along the courses, and they plan to resume their bat studies next spring. She hopes her findings will suggest ways in which golf course managers can make their landscape more bat friendly. "We complain about [golf courses]," she says, "but that may not necessarily be the right attitude to have. We should look at these places as opportunities" to make everyone a winner.