At Fort Campbell, Gene Zirkle is affectionately known as Batman, while his daughter Sarah, has earned the nickname Batgirl. However, their heroic endeavors are not centered around fighting crime but rather focused on the conservation of endangered bats. Gene has dedicated nearly 25 years to serving the U.S. Army, primarily as a wildlife biologist, working diligently in natural resources preservation.
Sarah works for a consulting firm based in Nashville, Tenn., specializing in wetland permitting and conducting surveys on endangered species. Since 2016, she has accompanied her father on numerous occasions, assisting him in collecting bat data. It was through these shared experiences that Sarah found her passion for working with bats and subsequently pursued a career in this field.
Throughout the summer months, Gene and his team can be found at Fort Campbell, actively engaged in activities such as netting and tagging bats, monitoring their movements, assessing their well-being, and meticulously documenting their progress. Their tireless efforts contribute significantly to the preservation and protection of these fascinating creatures. All in a day's work for this dedicated team.
“I love my job. I wanted to be a biologist, and this is the best job there is and this is the most awesome place to do it. Every day is a new challenge on a military installation. Every day is like Christmas where you get a new present. Every day I get a new problem and I get to solve it,” he said of his career at Fort Campbell, where he grew up and went to work in 1992. “I’ve gotten to do what I wanted to do, grew up in the military setting, my job was to support the military and I’ve done my best for 30 years, and hopefully will keep doing it for the next 20.”
Zirkle credits his high school biology teacher for firing his passion for the field – he went to elementary, middle, and high school on Fort Campbell – and has spent his career studying and supporting wildlife and endangered species, particularly bats. He began his Army work in 1992 with Integrated Training Area Management (ITAM), and then in 1998 moved into the Directorate of Public Works in the wildlife biologist role. In 1998, the bats were discovered on Fort Campbell.
He says his start in ITAM gave him a good perspective on the environmental work he does – understanding the balance between providing the necessary training resources and complying with regulations designed to protect and preserve endangered species.
“We’re all working for the same mission,” he said. “DPW works for compliance, what we can and can’t do and how we can do it. On the ITAM side, the mission is the soldier, getting the soldier what the soldier needs to train. There is a nexus between the two of us. We’re separated, but our missions run parallel. We’re kind of like the silent partner, doing everything to make sure we can do what needs to be done.”
Zirkle said that maintaining consistent standards of land stewardship is a key to helping to support the training mission while protecting endangered species. And staying on top of coming changes and understanding the possible impacts at Fort Campbell is part of the job.
He said that the tri-colored bat is likely to be included in the federal endangered species list in the coming years and in Tennessee and Kentucky, wildlife managers are having difficulty in finding the bats. “On Fort Campbell we can capture one just about any night, we know where they are.”
Zirkle said Tri-colored bats have maternal roosting areas, where generations of females come together to raise their young. At Fort Campbell, his team has identified 55 different roosts in surveys of roughly half the total 106,000-acre installation. He anticipates finding more maternal sites as the research and surveying continue.
“We’ve been working together with forest management to identify where we know the bats are and to incorporate that into our forest management plans. That’s the kind of collaboration we use to protect these species and to understand our environment,” he said. “This approach means we’re really good stewards of the land, and we try to keep it that way from year to year – that really supports these species and preserves their habitat.”
“We would do work that benefits forest management as well as endangered species management,” he said. “That’s how you work together and collectively benefit the mission and environment.”