How far would you drive in the Badger State to find a badger -- or even a burrow? Graduate student Liz Kierepka has traveled more than 300 miles -- more than once -- only to find her research subject had moved on to a new address.
Near La Crosse, she even had GPS coordinates reported, but there was no burrow in sight when she arrived.
The beloved state mascot manages to be all but invisible. And that is precisely the reason badgers are a protected species in Wisconsin, says Emily Latch, a UWM assistant professor of biological sciences.
"We just don't know anything about them. So what we're looking for is really basic," says Latch. "We want to know where they live, about how many there are and where they go when they move around."
As head of the two-year-old Wisconsin Badger Genetics Project, the first long-term study of the state's badger population, Latch is working with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in gathering DNA samples that will yield new information about the elusive animal.
Essential to the project's success is reporting by ordinary people across the state. They contact Latch's lab to share badger or burrow sightings and send trail photos or photos of backyard burrows.
Kierepka drives to promising sites and outfits any active burrows she finds with homemade hair snares -- combing devices that pluck a few hairs from the animals as they enter the hole. DNA is extracted from the hair in the lab, giving each creature a unique "fingerprint" for tracking purposes.
Slow going By early July, the lab had identified 144 distinct animals. That may not sound like a lot, but it isn't easy tracking badgers.
Only about 10 percent of the burrows she's been summoned to are active, says Kierepka, who completed her master's at Central Michigan University before coming to UWM. The animals occupy a burrow for a matter of days before moving on to the next. In summer they can move every day.
Another reason they are so hard to study? They don't really have necks, so outfitting badgers with radio-frequency collars is almost impossible.
She has learned that when it comes to badger behavior, there is a lot of variation. Despite the badgers' reputation for fierceness, for example, she has never had one attack or come out of the burrow after her.
The snare sometimes doesn't fare as well. One badger had angrily removed it. "It was sitting on top of the burrow, bent, with teeth and claw marks on it," Kierepka said. "I nicknamed her 'Little Miss Growly Pants' because she was so tiny, but very loud."
The DNA advantage Badgers have been seen in every county in the state. Unfortunately, when the one and only badger sighting in Milwaukee County occurred at the downtown post office last summer, Kierepka was on another call in Juneau County.
But her extensive travel has paid off. She has isolated the top two "hot spots" for badger activity as Central Wisconsin, from Marathon County to Dane, and the northern counties of Bayfield and Ashland (known as "the Northwest Sands"). Now she is concentrating on collecting enough samples to characterize the role of geographic barriers on badger movements throughout the state.
How are the badgers on the east side of the Wisconsin River different from those on the west side? Does soil type influence where badgers like to dig burrows? Are there populations of badgers in Wisconsin that are isolated from other populations by roads, cities or other barriers? Do populations harbor sufficient variation to ensure their viability?
The DNA of individual animals can be charted to offer a road map of distribution and relative abundance across the state, says Latch, who specializes in evolutionary ecology and was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Zoo.
"We're interested in determining the best conservation and management practices to ensure the persistence of badgers over the long term," she says.
Badger love The state DNR is a perfect partner for this study because it is responsible for relocating wild animals reported as nuisances. DNR wardens also collect most of the road kill -- even if citizens find it.
Dave Sample has seen evidence that badger populations are negatively affected when their native habitat is converted to agricultural land.
"They've been protected from harvest in Wisconsin since 1955," says Sample, a grassland ecologist with the DNR's Bureau of Science Services, "but we would like to know if a decline in observations over the last decade means we should do more."
John Olson, a DNR ecologist based in Ashland, and Brian Sloss, assistant unit leader with the Wisconsin Cooperative Fishery Research Unit at UW-Stevens Point, have also been valuable contributors to the study.
UWM researchers have encountered much enthusiasm for the small carnivore. "It's been a citizen-science-based project," says Latch. "People in Wisconsin love badgers, and that has suited us very well for just this kind of study."
Though the project will continue long-term, Kierepka believes she will be finished with burrow visits by next year. The team is also collecting DNA samples from across the country, which will likely continue through 2013.
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