Kootenay National Park
The Badger - A Species at Risk
Throughout history, most cultures have failed to appreciate the value of the badger. This is particularly true in Britain, where, until the late 19th century, badger baiting was a popular sport'. One version involved putting a badger into a barrel open at one end then releasing dogs to fight the cornered animal. This was the origin of the verb to badger' meaning to harass. In North America, badgers were regarded as a nuisance by settlers and were relentlessly shot, trapped and poisoned. More recently, we are beginning to view the badger as not only beneficial to humans but also a keystone species in grassland ecosystems.
Status in British Columbia
In the early 1900s, there was widespread persecution of badgers and populations never recovered. Recent estimates now put the number of badgers in British Columbia at fewer than 200 breeding adults. The type of badger found here is the jeffersonii subspecies and it is ranked as endangered' by COSEWIC. In 1999, the British Columbia government put the badger on its red list', meaning it is endangered or threatened.
Why conserve a subspecies?
Each of the four subspecies of badger in North America has different physical traits and different combinations of genes. This variety of genetic material within a species enables it to adapt to changes in its environment and persist. Removing even one subspecies would put the American badger one step further down the road to extinction.
Open Douglas fir forest© Parks Canada / T. Hogg
American badger, jeffersonii subspecies© R. Klafki
Threats to Badgers
Badgers favour open habitats in valley bottoms but this is also where humans like to live. Towns, rural subdivisions, industry, agriculture, reservoir flooding, highways and railways have carved up and consumed badger habitat. Many former habitats no longer support badgers.
In British Columbia, trapping or hunting badgers on provincial crown land is not permitted. Badgers are sometimes killed by land owners concerned that their stock animals will break a leg stepping into a badger hole.
Every year, many badgers are struck and killed by cars. The low-slung badger navigates not by climbing over obstacles but by digging under them. The concrete barriers that line highways can trap a badger on the road with no way off.
In nature, many open habitats are fire maintained they have evolved with fire as a natural disturbance. Over the years, suppressing wild fires has resulted in trees filling in open forests and invading grasslands.
Loss of prey
In British Columbia, the badger's preferred prey is the Columbian ground squirrel. Commonly called gophers', these animals are sometimes regarded as pests by farmers and ranchers and poisoned or shot.
The Value of Badgers
The badger, one of the few grassland carnivores in Canada, plays an important ecological role. In some areas, they are considered a keystone species . On the prairies, abandoned badger holes are used by burrowing owls, swift foxes and rare amphibians and reptiles. Badger diggings also improve the soil through aeration, improving water flow and promoting the development of the humus layer. Badgers benefit humans economically by controlling rodent populations. Finally, it can be argued that badgers should be valued for their own sake as part of the rich diversity of life on earth.
A keystone is the stone at the top of an arch that supports the other stones and keeps the whole arch from falling. In nature, a keystone species helps support the other species. Removing a keystone species can upset the balance of the whole ecosystem.
Grasslands are very important ecosystems. Less than 2% of grasslands in British Columbia are in protected areas yet they support nearly one third of the province's endangered or threatened species including badger, pocket gopher, long-billed curlew, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and rubber boa. Grasslands are shrinking at an alarming rate. They are British Columbia's most endangered habitat more at risk than old-growth forests.
Douglas fir / grassland habitat© Parks Canada / A. Dibb
The badger, with its low numbers and large home ranges, presents a conservation challenge. The survival of the badger depends on public education, private stewardship and land-use planning that is badger friendly.
In British Columbia, most badger habitat is on private land so gaining the support of landowners is crucial. While the badger if often regarded as a pest, the amount of damage it does is minimal and offset by its benefits in rodent control and soil conditioning. Landowners are urged to be more tolerant of badgers and their prey.
Other actions to restore badger habitat include using prescribed fire to halt forest in-growth and restore the grassland habitats so essential for badgers and other rare species. Researchers are also providing information about badgers to regional governments involved in land-use planning. Badger populations are dangerously low and we will need to act fast to halt the downward slide of this interesting and valuable animal.