Ontario farmers’ unlikely friends
Province’s endangered badgers rely on the help of farms to survive
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.