By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
It happened this week for the first time. I saw the animal I’ve been searching for in the north woods for over 23 years. This week while driving home, I saw an animal crossing the road in front of me at some distance. “Oooh, a larger mammal…what could it be?” I thought. My first thought: “it could be a fisher, but no, it couldn’t be because it isn’t bounding across the road like a weasel or squirrel.” My second thought: “maybe it is a gray fox. The color is about right, and the shorter legs seem to fit, but no, the movement doesn’t quite fit.” As I approached, to my astonishment, I discovered it was a badger. It lingered on the side of the road, turned and looked at me, and then loped off into the woods. I had been privately convinced that badgers could not live in northern Wisconsin because I hadn’t yet seen one, but there it was, finally, right in front of my eyes. I’ve rooted for the Badger Football Team, and celebrated the badger as our state animal, and finally I discovered that badgers DO really live here, and they are a resident of the Town of Cable!
Many are aware that we are called the “badger state,” but the actual reason for having that name is due to the miners in the 1800’s who dug tunnels into hillsides to search for lead, mimicking the badger as they lived in the tunnels during the winter to stay warm. The mammal we call a badger is usually not seen because like the miners, it spends its days inside its shallow den. These solitary animals hunt mostly at night so are not commonly seen.
What is badger habitat? Their habitat is made up of untilled fields or grasslands, pastures, hayfields, fence lines, roadsides, or prairie remnants, but can be at home in places that have two basic requirements: good prey availability and sandy soil for digging. Unlike Wisconsin “badger fans” who might prefer hot dogs, nachos or peanuts at a game, the badger eats rabbits, eggs, insects, snakes and small birds. However, since they live most of their lives underground, they will dig right into the burrows of other ground dwellers such as woodchucks and ground squirrels. Their sense of smell nearly matches the smell of dogs, animals that have one thousand times better sense of smell than humans, making it easy for badgers to scent their prey even underground.
What about their digging? Badger digging habits are impressive. A transparent membrane covers their eyes to protect them from the soil as they are excavating. Webbed front feet with efficient claws push out dirt effectively, and loose skin lets them turn in tight corners underground, or twist out of a predator’s grip. Their wedge-shaped head also moves through soil quickly, and lets them scent their prey. Badgers burrow through soil as a means of protection, and have been observed digging fast enough to dig their body out of sight within minutes. They spend at least ninety percent of the winter in their den, or “sett.” The soil around the den keeps the badger insulated, as the den can be up to thirty-one degrees warmer than the outside air.
How could we recognize a badger hole? Badgers dig horizontally into the sides of their tunnels, looking oval-shaped, and with many claw marks in the sides. Their tunnels can go twelve feet deep and be as much as fifty feet long.
Just how common are badgers in northwestern Wisconsin? In 1961 mammalogist H. Jackson used trapping numbers to predict that there were 5-20,000 badgers in the state. Since badgers are protected now from trapping, estimates are more difficult to make, but in 1975, a DNR wildlife biologist estimated the population was 8-10,000. A study in Illinois showed badgers moving as much as three miles in one night, and were found to have a territory of ten to twelve square miles. In Wisconsin, badgers have been recorded in every county except Milwaukee. In our area, Douglas and Bayfield County are in the top five counties for badger observations from 1987-1998.
At the end of the summer, it is more common to see badgers crossing roads, as the young are dispersing to new habitats and are in search of a new mate. After researching this mammal, I feel lucky to have finally seen one of these beautiful creatures. Keep your eyes out with hopes that you could make the same observation. Please Email your own badger observations or stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibits, the Curiosity Center and Brain Teasers 2, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about exhibits and programs.