The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
― Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), ‘Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold’
The badger that lives on the edge of the big hayfield made it through this hard winter of 2013-14. Although I have not yet seen him in the flesh, I found evidence of his survival after the last traces of snow melted away: one of his excavations on the north edge of the field where he was burrowing for pocket gophers, a favorite entree.
Although the badger and I are not friends – far from it; he treats me like his most detested enemy whenever we meet – I was pleased to know that he is still living and apparently prospering in the rough woods and brush lands on the borders of the farm. He has chased me, growled at me and snapped at me with murderous intent, but the place would be something less without him, and I want him and his kindred to dwell here as long as I do.
While the other large mammals of the Great Plains – the grizzly bear, cougar, wolf, bison, elk – have been exterminated over the past 200 years, the badger has held on, albeit in limited numbers. Most zoologists attribute the badger’s survival, and the extinction of his erstwhile mammalian peers of the prehistoric era of native grasslands, to suitable habitat. Scattered remnants of marginal land that can support badger populations still remain among the millions of acres of the plains that have been reduced to sterile, lifeless soil by the agricultural practices of our industrial society.
Also, the badger spends much of its life in subterranean haunts and was therefore less visible to the early white settlers and farmers who naturally saw all wildlife as a food source.
I disagree. Based on my own experiences with badgers, I contend that they are the perpetrators of the demise of the bear, wolf, cougar, elk, bison, and probably several dozen other late lamented species of wilderness wildlife. My theory is that the badgers, in a Darwinian maelstrom, slaughtered them by the millions, ate them nose to tail, and gloated over the carcasses, using splinters of their bones as toothpicks
Admittedly, my knowledge of the badger’s predatory behavior is based on a few brief and highly active encounters when I was not disposed to pause for careful and considered observation, or to take detailed notes, photographs or video footage. In each instance I was running at 22 miles per hour (my animal encyclopedia says that a badger can run, in short bursts, at speeds up to 21 miles per hour) and was engaged in distractions that included shouting, leaping, whistling, waving and kicking at both the aggressive badger and my dogs. The dogs, being much faster and agile than I am, found these badger adventures highly entertaining and begged for repeat performances.
Yes, the American badger (Taxidea taxus of the taxonomic family Mephitidae, a not too distant relative of the skunk) is a nasty customer. They are squat-bodied, short-legged, thick, muscular, surprisingly large (up to 35 pounds), reclusive, ill-tempered, territorial, tenacious and aggressive when disturbed. Much like me in almost all particulars.
A badger is a digging machine with powerful forelegs and shoulders, long claws, and a passion for earth-moving that shames the most astute backhoe operator. Its focus on excavation is so intense that if you should come upon one that is madly tunneling in pursuit of a mole you can literally grab it by the tail before it becomes aware of your presence. I do not recommend this, however. For one thing, its tail is quite short and difficult to grasp; for another, the badger does not like having its tail grabbed and expresses this dislike in a most vehement way.
I discovered this seven or eight years ago when my bird dog Sasha seized a burrowing badger by the tail on warm evening in June. A Keystone Cops slapstick pursuit scene ensued.
The badger chased Sasha, snarling and clicking its teeth and snapping its broad, flat head back and forth to express its irritation. Fearing the badger would bite and maim my dog, I chased after them, blowing my training whistling, shouting, and threatening bodily harm to both. Not the least intimidated, the badger turned and chased me for ten or twenty yards with Sasha close behind barking and nipping. I would like to think Sasha was coming to my rescue, but in truth she was acting out of sheer enjoyment.
When she clipped the badger’s rear with her teeth, it whirled around, threw itself onto the ground and thrashed wildly in a performance of rage and abuse that would have done credit to any World Cup soccer player dramatizing his faux injury to the cameras. But in ten seconds it was up and running for its den in the woods with Sasha in chase and me running behind. This turn-and-turn-about game of death tag continued for several more minutes until I caught hold of Sasha’s collar and dragged her from field of battle.
The badger made two short dashes after us, cursing in badger-ese that we were %$* cowards and @#&! scum and should stand and fight like warriors instead of prancing away like pink-dirndl-clad schoolgirls. Sasha was up for the brawl, but I declined. I’m the one who pays the vet bills, not her.
When I tell this story in hunting camp I insist the badger was a boar with huge fangs and gallons of mating-season testosterone coursing through his veins, but for all I know it was a sow with a den of cubs somewhere waiting for her to come home with a mole or gopher dinner. I was grateful that they did not dine on canis lupus familiaris or homo sapiens. Badgers are omnivores, and we were omni.
A bit of badger lore: If you choose to hunt badgers on purpose, the dachshund was originally bred as a badger-hunting dog. The German word for badgers is dachs. The dachshunds I see these days do not appear to be practitioners of the sport.
More badger lore: They live in clans called cetes, a group of two to a dozen badgers. I do not know if the members of a cete are sworn to revenge the murder of a member of their clan, but I’m not taking any chances.
Badger lore from the publication Animal Friends of the Southwest by Fran Hubbard:
“Badgers can be fierce animals and will protect themselves and their young at all costs, are capable of fighting off dog-packs and fighting off much larger animals, such as wolves and bears.”
“However, badgers can be tamed and then kept as pets.”
I like them living on the marginal land on my farm. I really do. But we have agreed that they keep to their territory, I keep to mine, and a few passing encounters each year is enough for all of us.