Here in Wisconsin, we like to think we know our badgers. We find them on our state flag, emblazoned on t-shirts and performing more than the occasional pushup at football games. But for a state that loves its badgers, have you actually seen one? Like, a real-life badger?
David Drake has—twice. Once at Pope Farm Conservancy in Middleton and once while hiking in New Mexico. The Extension Wildlife Specialist and professor in UW–Madison’s Department of Wildlife Ecology says that’s just how badgers like it. “They’re relatively secretive.” And while its overseas cousin, the honey badger, is infamous for its aggression, the American badger isn’t likely to attack to people if given space. “They prefer to run away from you and get back to the burrow.”
Mysterious? Solitary? People-averse? Badgers perfected the art of social distancing long before the term was conversational. If you’re feeling uninspired with your current routine, David Drake offers a few tips to avoid people like a true professional.
The American badger is a stocky mammal that measures up to three feet in length and can weigh up to 50 lbs. Their fur is grizzled grey, and while badgers’ bulky frame renders them waddlers aboveground, their long claws make them expert diggers. Like their skunk cousins, badgers have scent glands that emit not-so-pleasant odors when threatened. While not as pungent as that of skunks, their smell ensures everyone keeps their distance—or at least covers their nose.
Drake provides two reasons why badgers are so hard to spot: they’re nocturnal, so they’re active at night, and they’re “fossorial,” so they live primarily underground. Because of their digging prowess, badgers don’t always need to venture aboveground to hunt. They can dig their way into the den of another unsuspecting ground-dweller—like a chipmunk or groundhog—and make a swift meal. They can also store food in their underground den, enjoying the benefits of having shopped during off-peak hours.
Ditch Tracking Devices
Despite their popular appeal, much is still unknown about badgers. They don’t exactly make easy research subjects. Drake points to efforts of a colleague in the Department of Wildlife Ecology, Tim Van Deelen, who struggled to get good data on badgers. Because of their wedge-shaped heads, badgers shrugged off the radio collars fastened around their necks. Van Deelen then implanted a radio under the skin of the abdomen. The radio signal, however, didn’t travel well through soil, making it difficult to track their whereabouts. Badgers, it seems, prefer life off the grid.
If You Want To Be A Badger
So, if you really want to see a badger, where can you find one? Drake says badgers prefer open lands like prairies and oak savannahs in the southern third of the state where the soil is easy to dig through. Although badgers can live on the edges of woodlands, they don’t like heavily forested areas where the soil is threaded with fibrous root systems that impede digging. “People who see them with some regularity are farmers. That’s nicely tilled soil so it’s easy to dig through. There are a lot of rodents—a good food source.” On a tractor, farmers also have the advantage of an aerial view that allows them to see badgers from a distance.
We could all learn a few lessons from our iconic state animal. And although nobody can find the thing, isolation doesn’t mean the badger is adored any less.
And what if you do see one? Admire, but don’t get too close. Badgers like their distance—at least six feet.
If you do encounter a badger, consider reporting it to the Wisconsin Badger Genetics Project and the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory, which track sightings across the state.