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Badger researcher Jimmy Doyle posing with our misunderstood state animal. Photo courtesy Jimmy Doyle

Badgers are notoriously difficult to study. Not only do they spend all day in underground dens, emerging only by night to hunt—they can’t even be tracked using radio collars. The devices slip right off of their heads, which taper from shoulder to nose. Badgers are so hard to work with, in fact, that researchers aren’t sure how many of them live in Wisconsin, even though the badger is our state animal.

“We don’t have a clue. We just don’t know much about badgers in Wisconsin,” says Jimmy Doyle, a forest and wildlife ecology graduate student who is studying the reclusive carnivores as part of a joint UW-Madison–Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) project called the Wisconsin Badger Study.

The project, which relies on surgically implanted radio transmitters to monitor the movements of badgers living in the southwestern part of the state, represents the first big effort in Wisconsin to better understand these animals. It will shed light on the landscapes where badgers prefer to live, where they prefer to hunt, how far they roam, whether their territories overlap and much more.

But first, Doyle has to find and catch them.

Working with various DNR technicians, he has walked through scores of miles of grassland over the past two seasons looking for dens, setting traps and then coaxing badgers into travel crates. The effort yielded three badgers in 2011 and 12 in 2012.

“They tend to be pretty feisty,” says Doyle. “There’s lots of snarling and snapping.”

Once caught, the badgers are driven to Madison for a health exam and to have a small radio transmitter the size of an AA battery surgically implanted just below the skin at the scruff of their necks. It’s a quick procedure, and the badgers are returned to their dens within about four hours. The transmitters enable Doyle and his DNR collaborators to track the badgers’ movements at night from the comfort of an antenna-equipped truck—without ever needing to get near the animals again.

The project has a second purpose: to help inform DNR efforts led by DNR grassland community ecologist David Sample to protect grassland-nesting birds in the study area.

Wildlife ecology professor Tim Van Deelen, who is Doyle’s advisor, explains the connection. “Grassland birds have this problem in the Midwest where they have to pull off reproduction in a very predator-rich environment—just think of all the small rodents that would love to eat a little bird egg,” he says. “Badgers might actually be good for birds because they might suppress some of those predators—by eating them.”