The American badger: A new mammal in town?

02/16/2017

The Jan. 26 edition of the Light featured a photograph of a badger “headed to the old Pine Cone Diner” in downtown Point Reyes Station. Perhaps readers saw it and chuckled. But the badger was young—I estimate  about a year old—and, ironically, it appeared malnourished.  

This new mammal in town was outside its natural habitat, and that’s a red flag. Recall stories of bears or mountain lions in urban areas; often they are desperately seeking nutrition or water. Sometimes encroachment through development eliminates natural habitat and displaces wildlife. We may think these creatures are coming to our areas, when in fact we have taken theirs.

The Point Reyes National Seashore has a small, sustaining American badger population living in its agricultural and coastal grasslands, the animal’s native habitat. This winter, strong rains may have impacted prey or habitat availability, especially for those developing survival skills in the first year of their lives.  

Badgers are carnivores, and their daily life involves following their prey, which in Marin and Sonoma Counties is primarily pocket gophers and meadow voles. Badgers dig out a prey hole and then create a burrow to occupy for a while, primarily on hillsides in grassland. Pocket gophers aerate the soil through their tunneling, supporting grasslands, and badgers naturally manage the gophers so that grasslands aren’t overly impacted.  

Around the seashore, at least one adult female is successfully mating and raising young about every other year. The one to three adult males thought to reside in Marin may move to and from a female’s territory. Badgers range through their habitat, staying in an area for one to two weeks, depending on the availability of prey, the season and access to water in summer months. When a badger departs, leaving behind a sleeping burrow among foraged-out gopher mounds or vole holes, other wild creatures, including skunks, foxes, red-legged frogs, tiger salamanders and burrowing owls, may re-use the abandoned burrow. 

Where there are badgers, there is often a variety of raptors and owls hunting the same prey. In my years of observing badgers and others hunting in the same areas, I have never seen an exhaustion of a prey source. A badger takes what it needs and then moves on. Ranging and moving, along with frequent digging, appear to support a badger’s immune system, staving off parasites and infection. At Point Reyes, badgers often also coexist with domestic animals on agricultural lands.

While badgers are often called nocturnal, the perception of a lack of threat and open wild lands often combine to support it foraging during daylight. Doing so is necessary for adult females in late winter and spring, when they need to protect their young in the burrow complex at night. 

Visitors traveling in the seashore may observe badgers, especially in summer months, when juveniles disperse from their mother as they seek their own territory. Seeing a badger for the first time can be quite an experience. The distinct black and white head, the brown, gray or black fur that helps camouflage its body in tannish grassland habitat areas, and the distinctive claw-paws can lead to a double-take. My hope is that sightings are rare but memorable, and from a distance.

Though badgers are not interested in our pets, badgers and dogs are not a good mix. Dog owners should remain calm, pull in their dog and back away. If you are hiking alone and encounter a badger, avoid direct eye contact and slowly back away. Retreat is a behavior that badgers recognize. 

Badgers, if confronted by humans, generally do not turn and run away. Instead, the defensive badger will lower itself to the ground, hiss and snarl and back up a few steps. If a badger sees you from a distance, it will likely disappear within seconds, escaping into a nearby burrow or expediently digging a new hole.  

As a naturalist focused on American badger conservation and research, I am grateful for the broad network of conservationists in the Bay Area. When I receive reports of badger sightings on private and public properties, I will personally verify a species sighting or activity. I’m often able to offer insights for private property owners about how to co-exist with a badger and allow it to forage before moving on.

For the badger headed to the Pine Cone Diner, I would have advised the photographer to contact the Marin Humane Society or WildCare while keeping it in sight until a representative arrived to capture and transport it. At WildCare, the badger would have received a check-up and nutritional support before hopefully being released into its native habitat. WildCare has an excellent record for medical and supportive care, relationships with other California facilities, and a priority of return to the wild as soon as possible.

Have you seen a badger? Report the sighting and become part of a conservation network by contacting me at (707) 241.5548 or susankirks@sbcglobal.net.

 

Susan Kirks has 17 years of field study of the American badger. A Sonoma County resident, she is president of the Madrone Audubon Society in Sonoma and chairs the board of Paula Lane Action Network, a conservation group helping to preserve open space and educate about badgers.