Column: The badger

Published 6:13 pm Thursday, September 8, 2005

By Staff
I'll never forget the day back as a kid when a buddy of mine and I were hunting gophers up in the Keeler area. There were lots of gophers back then. Stalking through an apple orchard we saw something gray and white moving through the grass. Figuring it was a feral cat, which was also on the shooting list, we moved in for a shot. Much to our amazement it was a badger. I'd always thought badgers were pretty cool but assumed they were creatures of the west. I never dreamed they were in our area. Having heard all the stories about how mean badgers are we held our guns at the ready, half expecting a vicious charge. Instead it just wandered off into the brush. I figured a badger in these parts was just a fluke but later I saw one lying dead along the road near Elkhart. Since then I've seen several others, including one living right amongst the houses in Dowagiac.
Badgers are primarily an animal of the prairies but they can be found as far east as Ohio, west to the Pacific, north to Southern Canada and south to Central Mexico. They're not often seen because they live in burrows and are for the most part nocturnal. Badgers are burrowing machines. Their stubby legs are extremely strong and they have straight toes tipped with long claws for exceptional digging power. It's rumored they can even dig through asphalt. They are mostly carnivorous and their primary food is small burrowing animals such as gophers, mice and, further west, ground squirrels and baby prairie dogs.
Badgers aren't what you'd call fleet of foot. They catch these animals by digging them out of their burrows. When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest I was puzzled by areas that were strewn with deep, three foot wide craters, looking like the aftermath of an extensive bombing campaign. Some places were so pockmarked it was difficult to walk. I learned that was the work of badgers digging out ground squirrels. For this reason most ranchers aren't fond of badgers. They don't think much of ground squirrels, either, but figure they're the lesser of the two evils.
Burrows are everything to the badger and they typically have many. Often, after digging out a gopher or mouse for a power snack they just keep on digging to create a new burrow that may extend thirty feet underground. They may change burrows as often as every day. They're a solitary animal and not especially territorial so they just keep wandering and digging new burrows wherever a spot suits their fancy. That's why one is seldom seen in a given area for long. You can often tell when a badger is around by the burrow. It's a bit larger than a woodchuck hole and, unlike the woodchuck den, it only has one entrance. There is usually more dirt strewn about and it is typically situated on an open hillside, whereas the woodchuck often selects a more secluded spot such as a brushy fence row or around outbuildings. A coyote den is much larger and is only dug in early spring when the pups are born. Coyotes never dig or utilize dens at other times of the year.
You've certainly heard the saying, "Meaner than a badger out of its hole." Badgers have the reputation of being aggressive but that's not really true. They may appear mean and surly when confronted away from their burrow but that's because they are too slow to escape by flight. Their only choice is to stand and fight and that they will do with vigor. Strong jaws filled with long teeth and powerful legs with rapier claws make the badger a formidable opponent.
Back when fur coats and such were socially acceptable badger fur commanded a fairly high price. Now about its only value is for paint brushes and even that has largely been replaced with synthetic materials. With few natural enemies and a reprieve from trapping one would expect badger numbers to be on the sharp rise. Populations remain stable at best, though, because of a decline in prairie dogs, ground squirrels and gophers. Carpe diem.