California’s native badger is a much-misunderstood – and now threatened – animal, as B. and I learned at a Bodega Land Trust-sponsored presentation by Susan Kirks, a naturalist affiliated with the Paula Lane Action Network. American badger (from the French becheur, “digger”) is related to weasels, skunks, otters, ferrets, and wolverines. We’d seen one out near the coast a while back, and I was hooked and had to learn more!
This carnivore forages for voles, gophers, mice, and ground squirrels with powerful legs built for digging (not running!) and a squat, flat body. Distinctive long fossorial (digging) 5-claw paws help it easily make burrows. Camouflaged well by dense fur in its preferred hill and grassland habitat, badgers make and abandon holes regularly. Then species such as burrowing owls, gray fox, red-legged frogs, tiger salamander, and skunks come in and use the empty dens. The solitary and reclusive badger is rarely seen, and should not be sought out. Despite wanting to see them and investigate, we should stay 25 feet away from dens, especially during breeding (April-July). In springtime, while badgers’ young sleep, they hunt – aided by keen senses of smell and hearing. Summer finds young seeking their own path in the world, to meet and mate in autumn.
American Indian folklore often portrays badgers as hardworking, cautious, and protective. Their otherwise fierce reputation – untrue except when they and especially offspring are threatened – may help protect these beleaguered creatures. Never look badgers directly in the eye; back slowly away. Some landowners hunt badgers, fearing for their own animals. But Kirks has seen no evidence supporting claims that dens harm livestock, pets’ aggression can be curtailed, and only rarely have badgers taken animals such as turkeys. Nevertheless, November to February is still legal badger hunting season: Fur is still used for old-fashioned shaving brushes; and badgers remain trophy animals, although how common is unknown. Our devastating drought has also impacted prey like gophers and voles, causing badgers to wander closer to yards and irrigation. We can place water out by property perimeters to keep badgers away from homes and pets.
A California Species of Concern since 1987, three out of four Sonoma County badgers born in 2014 were negatively impacted. Sadly, juveniles leaving to find their own dens often get hit by cars while crossing roads; or fall prey to coyotes, pumas, bobcats, bears, or golden eagles. Developers often see badger habitat as big as 500 acres, then want to set aside 100 of those acres for humans; but badgers need lots of room to roam. Badgers may be further threatened by well-intended conservation groups trying to attract membership by expanding hiking trails. These can displace badgers, and pregnant females especially are so important to biodiversity, in building their birthing habitats. We humans must become better land-use planners!
Petaluma has one of the oldest badger populations in Sonoma County, perhaps the entire region. Populations also live closer to the coast, in the west county (a critical habitat, connecting coast with inland), and in the Laguna de Santa Rosa. We need to do as much as we can to help this reclusive and protective animal.