Badger!!

A badger peeks from behind a water diversion structure at Los Vaqueros Watershed, Contra Costa County, California

A badger peeks from behind a water diversion structure at Los Vaqueros Watershed, Contra Costa County, California

According to former Elliot Ranch manager Greg Lehman, the last known sighting of an American badger (Taxidea taxus) at the top of Sonoma Mountain was about 20 years ago. Biologists have been hoping to see another up here for a long time. Over the last month we’d noticed sign that a badger might be present here on the ranch, but had no conclusive proof — til now.

On March 15th, we were thrilled to find several images of a badger on the memory card of a remote camera (camera trap) we’d placed in the recently burned Corral Meadow (Pressing the Reset Button: Prescribed Fire Clears the Slate).

This is exciting stuff! Not just for the Foundation, but for badger specialists and biologists across Sonoma County, this proof of the reappearance of a former resident species is highly rewarding. Its significance in the landscape can’t yet be gauged, but it belongs in these parts and we’re absolutely delighted to know it’s around.

Caught on a camera trap: A badger on Mitsui Ranch emerges from its burrow at night to survey its surroundings from the top of a pile of dirt tailings.

Why camera traps?

We were inspired to place camera traps here on the Mitsui Ranch after being asked by the Sonoma Land Trust  to participate in their Critical Linkages Project.

Part of the project involves placing strategically located camera traps across the Sonoma Valley Wildlife Corridor. The aim is to gather information on how certain animals use this geographic “pinch point” when migrating between mountain ranges. The project, run by Stewardship Manager Tony Nelson and funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, is in its second year and yielding fantastic results. (This was the first badger recorded by the camera traps!)

The Sonoma Mountain range likely plays a critical role in wildlife migration from the interior of California to the coast. Large amounts of data generated by these cameras will help ecologists and biologists understand how wildlife species migrate through a heavily populated area.

Sonoma Land Trust  cameras allowed us to see a large variety and number of species that we had not previously seen, so we decided to add more cameras in the landscape ourselves. Already, a great payoff!

Badger caught by a camera trap while inspecting its burrow entrance

Badger caught by a camera trap while inspecting its burrow entrance

Working landscapes that support badgers

Badger numbers have so declined in California that they are now listed as a Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Only large tracts of land can support badgers; they don’t do well where lands are fragmented by development or farming. Development brings people and their pets, which often drive away rodents — badgers’ major prey. In farm country, plowing of fields ruins habitat for rodents by destroying burrows, and farmers often poison rodents to protect their crops.

Large, undeveloped tracts of open space such as park lands or grazed landscapes are ideal for badgers. Here on Sonoma Mountain, large ranch properties are devoted to working the landscapes by grazing cattle wisely. Where cattle are well-managed and people are scarce, badgers can thrive.

How do you know if there’s badger around?

Badgers prey mostly on rodents such as mice, rats, gophers, and squirrels. They also eat large numbers of snakes. Badgers normally dig prey out of their burrows, but sometimes dig down and ambush the prey when it returns from foraging.

Typical badger excavation with a large pile of tailings. Note the slightly oval shape of the hole. Gophers often backfill the badger holes once the badger has left.

Typical badger excavation with a large pile of tailings. Note the slightly oval shape of the hole. Gophers often backfill the badger holes once the badger has left.

Badgers are supreme diggers, armed with long front claws and muscular limbs. They move a lot of earth when they dig, so piles of dirt grow very large. Also, the shape of the hole conforms to the shape of the badger, so it looks a little like a flattened oval.

This image was taken from one side of a badger excavation. Note the the claw marks on the right side of the hole. Claw marks on the side indicate a badger's work.

This image was taken from one side of a badger excavation. Note the the claw marks on the right side of the hole. Claw marks on the side indicate a badger’s work.

 

Badgers dig as if they were doing the breaststroke, which causes them to leave claw marks in the side walls of the hole rather than at top and bottom (as a digging dog would, for example). Badgers move from hole to hole in quick succession, leaving a lot of mounds of dirt tailings. Their presence in an area becomes apparent pretty quickly.

Let us know if you spot badger or badger sign on Sonoma Mountain. We’d love to know!

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