What creature has 34 teeth that automatically sharpen each other when its mouth opens and shuts, nictitating eyelids that protect its vision from being damaged by flying soil, uses stench from its musk glands to deter adversaries, eats rattlesnakes and is immune to their venom (unless bitten on the nose), has fur that was used in the early 20th century for men’s shaving brushes and ladies’ collars, and may presently reside on Ohio farmland? The answer is: The American Badger.
Rarely seen and largely unknown to most Ohioans, there is a viable badger population in the state, and reports of them have increased over the past couple of decades, according to Suzie Prange, state carnivore specialist, furbearer biologist, and mammalogist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. While there has been relatively little research conducted on the state’s badgers, Ohio State University graduate student Jared Duquette’s master’s thesis on Ohio badgers in 2008 helped to educate the public about Buckeye badgers and bring more attention to their presence among us.
The badger is a vigorous, burly, strong critter that is a member of the weasel family. Weighing between 12 and 24 pounds and measuring approximately two feet long, badgers have a white stripe that extends back over the head from the nose and characteristic black cheek patches, or “badges.”
Short-legged and flat to the ground, it has powerful feet and claws that it uses for digging. A burrowing creature that is nearly as wide as it is long, the badger, as naturalist Marty Stouffer puts it, resembles a “digging doormat…it lives to dig and digs to live…Its whole existence depends on its burrowing habits. It digs for defense, shelter, food, and sometimes just for fun.”
A carnivore, the badger feeds on rodents, reptiles, rabbits, insects, ground squirrels, and worms, oftentimes digging its prey up with its powerful front legs and feet. Due to their size and depth, badger holes can be dangerous if stepped in; measuring between eight inches to a foot in diameter, they further illustrate naturalist Olaus Murie’s observation that the critter is a “flattened digging dynamo.”
Badgers are not native to Ohio and the first reports of them here did not occur until the late 1800s. Duquette says that there has been a range increase of 17% from the badger’s historical range and that Ohio is the “presumed eastern extent of their distribution.”
Duquette’s research suggests that the conversion of Ohio’s forests to agriculture after settlement helped them to extend their territory. Duquette says that agricultural development “may have additionally provided badgers increased habitat and travel corridors allowing for potential population expansion.”
Badgers are primarily a plains country creature, preferring prairies and grassland habitats. Ohio badger den sites are “frequently located in or contiguous to agricultural habitat,” Duquette said, adding “Ohio badgers used wetland associated habitat” as well.
Due to their preference for open grasslands, in Ohio, badger numbers are generally concentrated in the northwest and west-central sections of the state. Duquette’s research indicates that the core areas of distribution are centered in the state’s historical prairie regions and that 99% of recorded badger observations were above the state’s glacial line.
Suzie Prange gets most of her data on badger numbers from road kill reports and images captured on trail cameras. She receives approximately a half dozen road kill badger carcasses a year and said that over the past year or so, she has confirmed badger sightings/road kills from Williams, Defiance, Henry, Hardin, and Logan counties, as well as one from Portage county in northeast Ohio.
While Prange says that the animal is listed as a “species of concern” and its population numbers are low in the state, badgers appear to have found niches in various locations in northwestern Ohio.
“They are doing OK and are holding their own,” Prange said. “There are established, reproducing badgers in Ohio; they’re not just passing through.”
Badgers have a reputation for being belligerent, irritable, and fierce. Of course, to “badger” someone, in the American vernacular, means to tease, bully, or bother. And while a badger may bully other animals away from a food cache, they are often mischaracterized.
“They get a bad rap about their ‘badger attitude.’ They’re definitely aggressive if trapped or cornered, but they’re not going to actively pursue a person,” Prange said.
Badgers are dangerous when provoked, but they would rather dig to safety than fight. As an illustration of its great strength and its true disposition, Olaus Murie offers the following anecdote: “Once a badger started to dig into the ground to escape, I seized it by the hind legs and tried to pull it out of the hole as the hind quarters were disappearing, just to have another look at it and to see what it would do. But the badger held fast. I felt as if I was trying to pull out a big plant by the roots. In a few moments I noticed the muzzle coming out, doubling back under the belly, reaching for my hands. I promptly let go and watched it disappear into the ground!”
Prange does not foresee badgers being an issue for Ohio’s agricultural community and has not received any reports about livestock predation or nuisance badgers.
“No one seems to get worked up about badgers,” she said, “They’re not fast-moving predators that are going to jump on the back of a sheep. Maybe they would get into a chicken coop — like anything else — I mean, what wouldn’t get into a chicken coop?”
If a landowner does find evidence of a badger on his property, Prange said it is best to just let it be.
“Leave it alone and if it’s not in a place where it is going bother them, their pets, or their livestock, leave it be and call your local wildlife officer to report the sighting. If it becomes a problem, hire a trapper to remove it,” she said.
The badger offers diversity to the Ohio landscape. A carnivore with a hearty appetite for small mammals, it plays a predatory role in the prairie country ecosystems in which it is found. The persistent existence of this grasslands weasel in the Buckeye state is a testament to the adaptability and attitude of this fascinating animal.