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Digging badgers out of a hole

Nancy Newhouse is known as the “badger lady.” Although she is now working with the Nature Conservancy in B.C. to protect species other than badgers, she headed up Canada’s first intensive radio telemetry-based study of American badgers.

Nancy Newhouse is known as the “badger lady.”

Although she is now working with the Nature Conservancy in B.C. to protect species other than badgers, she headed up Canada’s first intensive radio telemetry-based study of American badgers.

Newhouse’s love of badgers began in 1994 in a rundown farmhouse in Wardner, B.C. – inhabited by mice, a flicker, little brown bats and even a weasel – when she spotted two badgers playing in a field one fall day.

She was immediately struck by the cute animals, which have a white stripe running from the shoulder to the tip of the nose and dark markings on the face, and wanted to find out as much information as she possibly could.

Back then, there had been little to no research on badgers and within a year Newhouse had helped launch the East Kootenay Badger Project. Her groundbreaking work led one of the four subspecies (Taxidea taxus jeffersonii) of American badger, found only in B.C., to be put on Canada’s endangered species list.

“I had never seen one before. It was the most amazing thing,” said Newhouse during a presentation hosted by the Bow Valley Naturalists on Jan. 28. “I found out later they weren’t really playing, that they actually breed in the fall. It was a great introduction to badgers.”

The T. t. jeffersonii subspecies in Canada is found only in southern B.C.’s interior valleys. The current population of this subspecies is estimated to be between 250 to 400 individuals, while the number in the East Kootenay region is between 100 and 160.

The reasons for the dramatic declines in numbers are caused by fragmentation and loss of habitat, a decrease in prey species like ground squirrels, and death caused directly by human activities.

Badgers, which are nocturnal members of the weasel family, like to live in open valley bottoms for the most part – the same places humans like to build cities, roads, farms and orchards.

With short, powerful legs and impressive claws, badgers were made to dig. The animals are typically found in grasslands and farms, but they have also been known to use forested areas and alpine sites in British Columbia, including Kootenay National Park.

There is also deliberate persecution of badgers as “pests.”

“Persecution of badgers is a big deal,” said Newhouse. “There’s a huge fear factor about horses or cows falling into badger holes, but there’s very little evidence of them falling into burrows. It’s an excuse or rationale for shooting them on site.”

In 1995, Newhouse started the East Kootenay Badger Project, a long-term study looking at badger ecology and distribution in the East Kootenays, including Kootenay National Park, bounded by upper Columbia Valley and upper Kootenay Valley.

The project, which concluded in 2006, was the first of its kind in Canada to follow badgers fitted with radio transmitters and map their travels, and work closely with landowners to increase the number of badgers maintained on private property.

Thirty-two badgers were radio-tagged for the project and their movements were followed to determine movement rates and home range size, patterns of habitat use and dispersal, birth rates and reproductive success and causes of death.

With badgers on the verge of being eliminated from the wild in the upper Columbia River Valley, 16 animals were brought in from an area west of Kalispell, Montana, in 2002 and 2003 to help boost badger populations in the Columbia Valley.

All three trans-located females managed to reproduce a total of eight kits in all.

“I think we made an intervention that made a difference, not just biologically, but culturally,” said Newhouse. “People in the Columbia Valley know badgers belong there, instead of letting them wink out.”

Newhouse said the study showed the home ranges of badgers were much bigger than initially thought.

She said one male badger went from the valley bottom near Johnson Lake in the East Kootenays high up into the alpine into the Purcell Mountains – and then back down to the valley bottom again.

“When we started, we thought we’d be following these guys around in a truck. I got a specially-mounted antenna for my truck so I could track for about three kilometres,” she said.

“They were acting like little grizzly bears in terms of how far they were going and no one expected that.”

Four of the badgers in the project ended up being killed on roads, one was killed by a train, two were presumed killed by cougars, two more hunted by bobcats and one more was known to die of old age – at age 13.

Newhouse said mortality on the roads remains one of the biggest risks for badgers.

“Road kill is the fate of many animals,” she said. “They are really susceptible to getting hit on the highways.”

In fact, Newhouse successfully looked after a female badger that got hit by a vehicle, and was left with a broken pelvis. The injured badger had managed to drag herself a few hundred metres to come to rest outside her burrow.

Newhouse took the injured animal to Cranston to see a vet, who indicated the badger would need to be put down, but then she got a second opinion from another vet who gave the animal a fighting chance if it could be kept still for six weeks.

Newhouse kept the badger in a concrete cistern, along with just one of the badger’s two kits she was able to locate, and fed them dead gophers. Live squirrels were also put in so the kit could learn to hunt, but the mother badger kept killing them.

“We released the female in fall before the breeding season, and she did breed and had two more kits,” she said. “The baby did not survive because she didn’t know how to hunt.”

Aside from direct mortality associated with roads and highways, loss of grasslands has been a big player in dwindling badger populations as has urban development, including development of hydroelectric dams.

Newhouse said the Libby Dam in Montana, which opened in 1975, destroyed a large area of important habitat. The reservoir behind the dam is Lake Koocanusa, which extends into southeastern B.C.

“What used to be under Lake Koocanusa is super badger habitat,” she said.

But Newhouse said education and acceptance of badgers has come a long way since the East Kootenay Badger Project began almost 20 years ago.

In fact, she said, Windermere’s official community plan now has zoning in place for badger conservation.

“These research projects start to feed a lot of different arms of conservation,” she said. “Hopefully, there’s light at the end of the burrow.”

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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