Wisconsin is known as the Badger State. The American badger was adopted as Wisconsin’s official state animal on June 27, 1957, but not without serious debate from northern legislators who thought the white-tailed deer should be named the state animal for the following reasons. They thought the white-tailed deer should be picked because of its strength, regal stature, and the economic value of deer hunting and wildlife viewing. And, after all, how many badgers have you seen in the state compared to deer? After the fur settled, a compromise was reached, and the badger was named the state animal and the white-tailed deer was named the state ‘wildlife animal.”
We know a lot about deer, but how much do we really know about badgers — a lot less than we know about deer. I hope to change that by telling you some interesting facts about our secretive, famous badgers and how they became our state animal.
Wisconsin got its nickname “The Badger State” because miners in the 1800s dug tunnels into hillsides mostly in southwestern Wisconsin searching for lead used in paint and lead to make shot for guns. Miners who wanted to keep digging throughout the winter would shelter in place and live in their tunnels. People called them ‘badgers’ because that behavior mimicked badgers who spend most of their time underground. That is the reason we don’t often see badgers, out of sight, out of mind, even though they are common, but not numerous in the state. If fact, we really don’t have a good idea of how many badgers live in the state, the closest recent estimate being about eight to ten thousand.
It was four elementary school students from Jefferson County who discovered the badger had no official status in Wisconsin even though badgers were associated with the state coat of arms, flag, and official seal, the University of Wisconsin’s Bucky Badger, and lead miners. So, the students spearheaded a drive to make the badger the official state animal in 1957 and it was successful.
Badgers are ferocious fighters and not at all friendly. They will growl, snarl, and give off a musky and smelly scent when bothered. But, no need to bother them as they have been protected by state law since 1955 and they try to stay away from people. Their aggressive traits, however, are why badgers are frequently chosen as a team mascot. The University of Wisconsin adopted the badger as its mascot back in 1889 and their athletic teams are often known as “The Fighting Badgers.”
The badger has been found in every county in Wisconsin, but they prefer tree-less areas of large, open sandy, grassy fields, savannas, and prairies. Look for a short, stocky, some-what flattened looking animal with a small face wandering around such habitats. They like sandy areas because it is easier to dig in, so look for big piles of soil outside their dens in secluded areas, often on hillsides where they like to live. They change dens often in their roughly three-square mile home range. They breed in summer and have two to five young during spring.
Badgers are opportunistic carnivores, or meat-eaters. They wander up to several miles each night looking for prey such as rabbits, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, and mice that they mostly locate by scent and hearing. Their eyesight is not as good as their nose and ears at locating prey.
Badgers spend 90 percent of their time in their den deep underground in the winter where it can be up to 31 percent warmer than the outside air, but they do not hibernate. They keep warm just like the lead miners did who sheltered in their mine tunnels during winter to keep warm.
Even though badgers are a protected species in Wisconsin, precious little is known about them. “If you want to be a Badger,” as the famous song goes, why not help the Wisconsin Badger Genetic Project (http://people.uwm.edu/badgerresearch/) understand one of the most fascinating animals in North America by reporting any sightings, burrows, or road kill by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone to 414-229-4245.