One of the most impressive things about the long-time resource professionals at the state Department of Natural Resources is that they care deeply about the fate of the natural world.
More than most, they feel a sense of responsibility for taking care of the often-times threatened landscapes and creatures that grace the planet, especially here in Wisconsin.
You have to work to find a better example of this dedication than David Redell, the agency's bat ecologist, who was recently honored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for his work. He was awarded the agency's highest honor, the Silver Eagle Award, which recognizes people and organizations who have made impressive contributions to wildlife conservation.
Redell, 42, has devoted his life and career to a small, flying mammal that has suffered mightily from misinformation and ignorance. Where others cringe at the thought and sight of a bat, Redell plunges into caves and mines in search of them and, whenever the opportunity arises, launches into eloquent explanations of their value and beauty.
In recent years, his task has become even more daunting. The specter of extinction, a very real threat for so many of Earth's wild inhabitants, hovers over the nation's cave bats like a dark cloud. It comes in the form of a disease — white-nose syndrome, a fungus-caused illness that has already wiped out millions of bats and has been discovered just next door to Wisconsin in Iowa.
Even before the appearance of the disease, Redell had developed a national reputation for his studies of Wisconsin's bats. Beginning with his graduate research in 1997, Redell made it his mission in life to shed the light of science on the state's bat populations. He identified the caves where they hibernate and developed monitoring techniques. His work on expanding our knowledge of bat ecology led to new management approaches, including the establishment of the DNR's Wisconsin Bat Program.
With the arrival of white-nose syndrome, Redell kicked his efforts into overdrive. He launched statewide data collection and surveys and worked to create a citizen monitoring program. He threw himself into education efforts. He personally established an endowment to pay for future bat conservation efforts.
I remember spending an evening with Redell at Governor Dodge State Park a couple of years ago. Redell had strung up tall mist nets to trap bats and collect survey data. He was totally consumed by the work and I recall how carefully he untangled the bats from the net and how gently he handled them before releasing them again into the dark. With the dire implications of white-nose syndrome just being realized by others, Redell was already looking ahead, worrying about the fate of the creatures to which he'd devoted his career.
"The next three years are the most important of my career," he said that night. "You never think you are going to be faced with helping to save a species from extinction."
Sadly, in recent months, Redell has been faced with his own personal battle, a much tougher fight than the one he has waged on behalf of the bats. He is now fighting brain cancer and spends most of his time at home under hospice care.
Last week, officials from the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and also from the regional office traveled to Madison to present the Silver Eagle Award to Redell in person.
Paul White, who has worked with Redell for years at the DNR on the bat program, said Redell was strong enough the evening of the presentation to travel with the officials to Neda Cave, an old iron mine in Dodge County that attracts thousands of bats.
It was, White said, a perfect night with a full moon illuminating the thick clouds of bats as they swirled up from the cave openings and around the amazed onlookers. That evening, White said, Redell was in his element once again. Seated in a chair and surrounded by an appreciative audience, he launched into one of his talks about the Neda bats and about the remarkable lives and habits of all bats. For a little while, he was lost again in the subject that he loves more than any other and everything else gave way to the flight of the bats in the moonlight on a warm summer night.