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Wisconsin is the "Badger State," yet the state animal remains a mystery to most Wisconsin residents. Though no one knows exactly how many badgers live here, trends data does show that badgers are faring well on the landscape today. The Wisconsin nickname misleads many: It pays homage not to the animal, but to the lead miners who mimicked badgers by holing up for the winter in underground shelters in the southwestern part of the state.
The American badger (Taxidea taxus) is an elusive creature – a solitary, nocturnal animal that spends much of its life underground. Badgers are natives of the tallgrass prairie and savanna in the southern and sandy central part of the state. Before European settlement, Wisconsin was on the northern and eastern fringe of the badger's range . The animal likely expanded its range here as forests were cleared and grasslands opened.
People admire badgers as feisty animals willing to go against the odds. This trait made them the victims of badger-baiting, in which people set dogs on a chained badger and watched the animal fight to the death.
In the wild, badgers sometimes go after prey close to their own size. "Badgers are pretty formidable," said Dick Bautz, a biologist at the DNR Research Center. "I don't believe they would back away from a woodchuck if they caught one."
Badgers average 12-25 pounds and big males can easily exceed 50 pounds. They can grow to about two and a half feet long, but their loose skin, unique hair and threatening attitude can make them appear much larger. When a badger tunneled underneath a rural radio station in Illinois, biologist Barbara Ver Steeg was called to explain badgers to the local D.J.
"I said, 'Well, it's a medium-sized mammal...' And the D.J. broke in and said, 'Medium-sized? It's as big as a VW!'" said Ver Steeg. "They can look bigger when they're mad and if they're growling at you." The badger has retractile hair. It can bristle out its coat to appear much larger than it truly is.
Despite their reputation as fierce fighters, badgers rarely choose to confront an enemy. Their main escape is by digging. With two-inch claws and a body built for excavation, badgers can disappear from sight in just a few minutes.
"They're very impressive diggers," said Ver Steeg, who studied badgers with the Illinois Natural History Survey. "It's just a huge plume of dirt in the air behind them – and then they're gone."
A transparent membrane covers their eyes and protects badgers from flying dirt as they dig. Webbed front feet push out dirt efficiently, and a wedge-shaped head lets badgers nose into holes to root out prey. Loose skin allows them to twist out of predators' grasp and turn in tight corners underground.
"Their tunneling habits are fascinating," says LeRoy R. Petersen, DNR farmland wildlife biologist. "Badgers dig mostly on the sides of the tunnel, which is why their excavations are typically a horizontal oval with numerous claw marks on the side. They are extremely fast, efficient diggers. Dogs dig mostly at the bottom of a hole and that's why they have vertically oval holes without claw marks on the side."
Some badger tunnels go down more than 12 feet and may be 50 feet long. Badgers have been known to tunnel through packed soil and asphalt roads. A favorite badger story comes from an early naturalist in California who watched a badger dig its way out of sight in one and a half minutes. Ver Steeg agreed that her research team, armed with shovels, was no match for the digging prowess of a badger: "We actually tried digging one out a couple times and that was a total failure."
Uncovering information about badgers in Wisconsin is about as difficult as unearthing a badger from its burrow. The Department of Natural Resources keeps accurate census records of game species like deer and grouse, as well as rare species like the timber wolf and ornate box turtle, but no one keeps as exacting a tally of how many badgers live in the state.
"They do fall between the cracks, no question," said Petersen. "They're not a nuisance concern. At the same time they are abundant enough that we are not concerned about their demise."
In 1961, H. H. T. Jackson in The Mammals of Wisconsin, estimated the badger population at between 5,000-20,000 based on trappers' records. Trapper data fluctuates wildly with fur prices, however, so it's hard to pinpoint an actual number. Since 1955, badgers have been a state-protected animal with no trapping allowed. That makes it difficult to accurately estimate their population today.
Concern about the badger's welfare prompted a state study in 1975. Petersen surveyed hunters, trappers and wildlife managers. The high number of badger sightings reassured him that badgers were holding their own. He found badgers living in almost every county in the state. We use population indices to monitor the status of many species, Petersen explains. It's a measure of field observations that we take in the same way every year, then they plot them over time. It isn't a census, but it does show trends. If the slope of that line increases, as it does for badgers, it suggests the population is stable or growing slightly.
"We were surprised – the badger was a whole lot more abundant than anyone gave it credit for," he said.
More recent surveys of wildlife managers collected informally by the DNR show that badgers are still widespread. Badgers are most common in sandy central and western Wisconsin, but in the past decade they have been sighted in every county except Milwaukee.
What Petersen found in Wisconsin seems to match what biologist Barbara Ver Steeg discovered in Illinois during a six-year study of badgers.
Ver Steeg attached radio transmitters to 10 badgers and tracked their movements for three years. She found that Midwestern badgers have huge home ranges – 10-12 square miles per animal.
"We had animals that would move three miles in one night. And that's just a straight-line distance; who knows what their little path of travel actually was," said Ver Steeg.
Unlike their western counterparts, which settle down near prairie dog towns, Midwestern badgers travel long distances on a constant search for food.
"Relative to the West, the Midwest does not have as high-quality habitat for these animals," said Ver Steeg.
During the summer months, badgers are constantly on the move, digging a new den nearly every night. Midwestern badgers stay put only in the winter, when they hole-up for up to two months to escape the cold. Female badgers also stay near the natal den in the spring to raise their young.
Not only do they move a lot, but badgers spread out, expanding their range into new territory that has opened up for grassland species. The same story is true throughout the Midwest: Badgers can now be found in northern Wisconsin, southern Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Today's badgers may travel more than their ancestors, but no one knows how their numbers match up with badger populations two centuries ago. Petersen estimated the state badger population in 1975 was 8,000-10,000.
"People wanted us to say, 'Are there more or less badgers than when the tallgrass prairie was here?'" said Ver Steeg. "And we can't say that, because we have no idea how many there were before."
Badgers still live on prairie remnants, but Ver Steeg said they don't rely on native habitat any more.
"If they were surviving on that, they wouldn't be here," said Ver Steeg. "There's nowhere near enough [prairie and savanna] to support a population of badgers."
Like grassland birds that adapted to pastures but declined when hayfields were converted to alfalfa, the badgers can adapt to some other habitats. Badgers need two things, according to Charles Long, emeritus biologist at UW-Stevens Point and author of The Badgers of the World: a good supply of prey and sandy soil where they can dig. If they can find what they need in pastures, hayfields, fence lines, roadsides, or prairie remnants, they'll dig right in.
When it comes to living space, badgers aren't picky. "I don't think they give a hoot what kind of vegetation it is," says Ver Steeg. "They are keying on prey. They're looking for small mammals like pocket gophers and thirteen-lined ground squirrels, but will eat almost anything they can catch."
In Wisconsin, the pocket gopher is only common in a few counties along the Mississippi River and other species have become more important prey. Guided by good hearing and a keen sense of smell, badgers hunt underground and surprise their prey by digging directly into their burrows. Badgers occasionally find a meal above ground, and will eat insects, snakes, birds and eggs. Since badgers are superior subterranean hunters, burrowing mammals like ground squirrels and woodchucks form their main diet. Since prey species inhabit short grass cover like pasture, mown roadsides and golf courses, that's where you'd expect to find badgers too.
Changing trends in farming have altered small mammal habitat. Ver Steeg found prey species most often in untilled fields like pasture, hayfields, or fields enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). Row crops, on the other hand, provided scant habitat for badger prey. Ver Steeg said rows of corn and soybeans only supported small animals like mice. The 750,000+ acres of marginal farmland enrolled in the CREP will continue to provide important habitat for badgers.
"There were more badgers in fields that are not disturbed annually, fields that are not plowed up every season," she said.
Besides supporting more prey for badgers, untilled grasslands are also more hospitable for safety reasons. Farm machinery can accidentally strike badgers buried beneath the ground, though Ver Steeg says that's rare because badger dens tend to be deep.
Badgers also die on state highways. With their large home ranges, badgers are crossing more roads than ever before. Road kill is particularly high at the end of summer, when young are dispersing to new homes and males are looking for breeding females.
More landscape change is on the way for Wisconsin badgers. What used to be a diverse agricultural landscape offering a mixture of fields, pastures and forest is shifting to row crops and home development. Of most concern are pastures, especially "prairie pastures" that retain the native sod.
"Some pastures in Wisconsin have never been plowed," said David Sample, a grassland community ecologist with the DNR. "They're the closest thing to prairie we have in our agricultural setting."
Conserving grassland habitat is challenging as most of it rests on private land. "It's a huge part of the badgers' available habitat," said Sample. "Public land is just a drop in the bucket. Farmland is so important to wildlife in an agricultural state."
Cost-sharing programs like the CREP can help private landowners keep grassland intact. Tom Thrall, state wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said cost-sharing programs have less appeal for farmers, who need to earn a living from the land, but they do attract a growing number of non-farming rural landowners.
Grassland habitat protection protects all kinds of species, including badgers and their prey. As predators, badgers are more resilient and appear to be holding their own in a changing landscape.
"They're very adaptable," said Ver Steeg. "And that's why they're still here."
Heather Rigney is a freelance writer living in Madison.