Protecting Bats In National Parks: It’s On Us
Living responsibly alongside wild animals means behaving in ways that will protect them and us. This includes taking steps to make sure we’re not causing harmful diseases to spread across wild animal populations.
One example of such a disease is white-nose syndrome (WNS), caused by a fungus that can kill hibernating bats through dehydration, starvation, or exposure to winter conditions. In the U.S., WNS has led to the death of millions of bats, causing some species to decline as much as 90%. According to research, humans can play a role in transmitting the fungus (for example, by unknowingly carrying it on their clothing).
Over the past ten years, efforts have been made to stop the WNS fungus from spreading. For example, many U.S. national parks request visitors to follow specific anti-contamination measures when visiting caves. However, people must actually comply with these procedures to help protect bats. This study investigated how visitors to U.S. national parks perceive protective rules designed to prevent WNS from spreading, and how motivated they are to comply with them.
In total, 1365 surveys were collected from adult visitors to eight U.S. national parks. The survey measured the visitors’ behavioral intent (how likely they were to engage in the protective measures), their attitudes toward them, subjective norms (what would influence them to comply), and their perceived behavioral control (how much control visitors felt they had in following the rules). Respondents were asked to weigh in on educational programs, wearing non-contaminated clothing and shoes, walking over decontamination mats, and complying with cave closures.
Overall, visitors said they were likely to engage in educational programs and tours focusing on bat and cave conservation and were very likely to use decontamination mats, wear non-contaminated clothing, and comply with cave closures. Visitors had positive attitudes towards all of the measures, with walking over decontamination mats receiving the highest attitude score (66% saw this measure as very desirable). Very few participants said that any one method was undesirable, or that they would be unlikely to participate in the preventative measures.
Visitors believed they were most likely to comply when rangers discussed the measures with them. The use of signs was the second most influential source, followed by witnessing the behavior of people traveling with them and finally the behavior of other visitors seen at the park but not traveling with them.
Finally, the researchers wanted to know whether visitors thought complying with the measures was within their control. Overall, visitors only felt their lack of control over cave closures influenced their decision to comply with this measure. Their view of how much control they had over other measures didn’t significantly affect their willingness to follow a park’s guidelines.
On the whole, it is reassuring that national park visitors have a positive attitude towards measures designed to protect bats and are also willing to comply with these procedures. The researchers suggest parks should focus on using persuasive communication to encourage positive attitudes about preventing the spread of WNS. The authors note that visitors seem more likely to support preventative measures when they’re provided explanations and educational materials. Parks should also capitalize on norms by using signage and relying on authority figures (like park rangers) to explain the rules. Although this study focuses on bats, the suggestions may apply to preventing other diseases affecting wild animals in the U.S. and elsewhere.