On­tario farm­ers’ un­likely friends

Prov­ince’s en­dan­gered bad­gers rely on the help of farms to sur­vive

Toronto Star - - SPECIAL REPORT: THE NEW FARM - Owen Roberts Ur­ban Cow­boy Owen Roberts is an agri­cul­tural jour­nal­ist at the Uni­ver­sity of Guelph. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @TheUr­banCow­boy.

On­tario’s 200 en­dan­gered bad­gers are hang­ing on by a thread. And their habi­tat — per­haps even their future — de­pends a great deal on farm­ers.

Bad­gers live in bur­rows around the perime­ters of farm­ers’ fields and creek­sides. They’re com­mon in Western Canada and parts of the U.S., where they’re some­times scorned for leav­ing holes that can ruin ex­pen­sive farm equip­ment.

But not in On­tario. Here, bad­gers are scarce and elu­sive.

Bi­ol­o­gist Josh Say­ers, leader of the On­tario Badger Project, a con­ser­va­tion pro­gram to save the griz­zled grey crea­tures, calls them “ghost­like.”

In­deed, be­cause they’re noc­tur­nal, few peo­ple ever see them. Plus, they have a huge range that they move within ev­ery few days. One badger around Till­son­burg, Ont., called 32,000 hectares home. That en­com­passes many farms.

“Be­cause bad­gers’ range is so broad, we need farm­ers to work to­gether to help main­tain habi­tat,” Say­ers says. “Nearly all of our work takes place on farms. For bad­gers, agri­cul­ture is huge.”

Say­ers has worked with farm­ers for eight years to help bad­gers sur­vive. Through farm vis­its and through the project’s web­site, he an­swers ques­tions about these mys­te­ri­ous crea­tures — their dis­tri­bu­tion and abun­dance, habi­tat, prey (they’re car­ni­vores), mor­tal­ity, and how they fit into the agri­cul­tural land­scape of south­ern On­tario.

It’s an un­easy ex­is­tence for bad­gers here. This is the eastern fringe of their con­ti­nen­tal range, so they were never very plen­ti­ful here to be­gin with. And it doesn’t take much to dis­rupt their ecosys­tems, like cities swal­low­ing up On­tario farm­land.

That makes farm­ers’ con­ser­va­tion ef­forts even more im­por­tant.

But even at the best of times, how do you keep track of 200 bad­gers in a prov­ince the size of On­tario?

Well, be­sides reg­is­ter­ing ac­tiv­ity such as bur­rows and sight­ings (in­clud­ing road kill), Say­ers and a hand­ful of oth­ers, in­clud­ing re­searchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Guelph, have out­fit­ted 10 bad­gers with small ra­dio trans­mit­ters.

Through a dozen mo­tion-ac­ti­vated trail cam­eras (sorry, no badger cam) strate­gi­cally placed near known bur­rows, they mon­i­tor the an­i­mals’ move­ment.

Such re­mote sur­veil­lance beats try­ing to fol­low a badger on foot, from county to county, or meet­ing one face to face, es­pe­cially if it feels threat­ened. Bad­gers are known for punch­ing above their weight, as seen in the video that went vi­ral of the badger in Utah bury­ing an en­tire cow car­cass.

But de­spite their fe­roc­ity, their future de­pends on farm­ers’ help with habi­tat. And they’re get­ting it. Over the past 30 years or so, var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment and con­ser­va­tion au­thor­i­ties have helped farm­ers re­plant thou­sands of hectares of trees, and re­tire frag­ile land along creeks, rivers and lakes.

Those mea­sures are vi­tal for food, wa­ter and shel­ter for many wild an­i­mals, in­clud­ing bad­gers.

“There’s a very strong and grow­ing ethic in the farm com­mu­nity to ap­pre­ci­ate and man­age the land­scape for bio­di­ver­sity,” says Harold Rudy, ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the On­tario Soil and Crop Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion. “We run a lot of con­ser­va­tion pro­grams and work­shops for farm­ers across On­tario, and they are al­most al­ways sold out.”


Bi­ol­o­gist Josh Say­ers is the leader of the On­tario Badger Project, a pro­gram to save the griz­zled grey crea­tures.

Bad­gers live in bur­rows around the perime­ters of farm­ers’ fields and creek­sides.

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