Conserve it and they will come
American badger (Photo by Max Allen/Shutterstock)
“There were about 22 of us, wandering back after a nice morning at the edge of the lake. I looked down into the meadow, and lo and behold…” Richard Klafki begins, before Chad Townsend jumps in.
“We looked into this open grassland and Richard all of a sudden yelled 'Badger!'” Chad says. “It took off running across the field, but we all got to look at it for a good few minutes.”
Richard and Chad, stewardship coordinator and program director, respectively, for the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Canadian Rockies program, were leading a walking tour on NCC's Columbia Lake-Lot 48 Conservation Area with a group of avid birders when the badger sighting struck.
“It was almost like it was on cue,” Chad says, adding with evident glee how everyone went scrambling for binoculars and cameras in an attempt to capture evidence of the rare animal.
No place for a badger
American badger at Columbia Lake-Lot 48. (Photo by NCC)
Though a remarkable event for many of those on the tour, the sight of a badger is by no means new to Richard, who has been working on badger-related projects since his time as an undergraduate student. In 2014, he received his master's in environmental science, focusing on road ecology and improving highway design for badgers in the Cariboo region.
“The highway is their number one threat,” Richard says. As badgers have very large home ranges, they will attempt to cross roads in search of prey and mates, which too often proves fatal. On top of contributing to road fatalities, highways fragment badger habitat, making it more difficult for male and female badgers to find each other during mating season.
As a result, badger populations have declined, and they are currently listed as a provincially endangered species in BC. As of 2006, there were only an estimated 200 badgers remaining in the Upper Columbia River Valley. NCC continues to work across multiple conservation areas, including Columbia Lake-Lot 48 and the 1,250-hectare (3,100-acre) Kootenay River Ranch, to protect grasslands that support badgers.
A groundbreaking return
The sighting of the badger on the tour was not just thrilling for the participants, it was also an ecologically significant event. These endangered animals have not been seen on Columbia Lake-Lot 48 for decades, if at all.
“When we started working here six years ago, there was no sign of badgers and only a few ground squirrels,” says Chad.
Ground squirrels, a kind of earth-dwelling squirrel smaller than a prairie dog or marmot but larger than a chipmunk, are a staple of the American badger’s diet. American badgers are what are known as fossorial carnivores, meaning they pursue much of their food — largely rodents, though they’re not picky — underground.
The explosion of ground squirrels in the conservation area is likely what attracted the badger to move in. But what made the area a haven for ground squirrels in the first place? Though no one can say for sure, it’s likely that the area, which had been irrigated as a hay field, would have become inhospitable for the creatures.
Since the haying stopped, the land has been returning to a more wildlife-friendly state, with some help from NCC. “We've done a lot of ecosystem restoration work to restore a natural open forest and grassland ecosystem here,” says Chad. Restoration activities have included clearing brush and young trees that are encroaching on the grasslands.
Anecdotally, the restoration efforts seems to be working.
“I’m starting to find badger burrows even where they don’t typically dig, such as in the forest and on hillsides,” says Richard, who first noticed badger tracks in the snow this past February. Since then, more and more have been nosing up out of the dirt.
To dig another day
American badger spotted at Columbia Lake-Lot 48. (Photo by NCC)
Following the badger sighting, Richard set up a trail camera by the burrow they found. A month later, it was stocked with evidence of deer, coyotes, elk and two different badgers: a male and a female. Though he had been hoping for a female with a family unit and natal den, the adult badger pair were still a welcome sight.
So are the badgers here to stay? Seeing a few badgers, while promising, doesn’t guarantee the return of an entire population.
Then again, as Richard says, “All they need is prey and soil to dig.”
Maintaining open grasslands through stewardship activities like slashing young dense tree growth allows ground squirrels to disperse into the openings, and makes way for badgers to follow the ground squirrels. Gradually, the badgers' range will expand.
While it might not mean an overwhelming resurgence, the sighting is, in its own way, ground-breaking.
“It means the habitat is at a place where it supports a badger living there,” Richard says. “That’s significant.”