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Biologists tracking badger found in forest preserve near Elgin

Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Chicago Tribune
by Mike Dahaney

A badger captured in a forest preserve near Elgin is going to be teaching wildlife experts a thing or two about its life in the suburbs.

Wildlife biologists caught the critter in a northwest Cook County preserve then surgically implanted a transmitter in the badger and placed it back near where it was found. The transmitter will be able to track its health, habits and behavior. Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, and Cook County Forest Preserve researches are collaborating on the study.

"I've been at my job 30 years, and this is only the fourth badger we've found in that time. It's very unusual to spot them in the Cook County area," Chris Anchor, senior wildlife biologist for the Forest Preserves of Cook County, said.

Anchor said badgers are under-studied animals, particularly ones living in urban and suburban areas. Their nocturnal travel habits and proximity to the ground make badgers hard to spot, which makes studying them challenging.

"Once you realize the animal is in the area, they have generally already moved on," Anchor said. "However, the information we could learn from a badger is indispensable."

Biologists working for the forest preserves knew a badger was in the area because they noticed large holes the animal left in the ground, Anchor said.

"When a badger burrows, it looks like a World War I battlefield," Anchor said.

Jennifer Langan, senior staff veterinarian for the Chicago Zoological Society and clinical associate professor at the University of Illinois, said the project presented a unique and exciting opportunity for local biologists, as badgers are rarely handled or even seen in Illinois.

"The partnership allows us to better understand the animals living in the region around the zoo," said Mike Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society. "This is a neat opportunity for us, taking the skills we have to provide to the county for this conservation effort. Finding the badger is a testament to the value of the forest preserves and shows some animals are making inroads coming back to what may have been part of their habitat."

"There is so little information known about badgers, especially badgers in an urban setting," Anchor said. "Just about all of the information we're going to gain from this study is going to be novel and helpful for conservation efforts."

Anchor said biologists used a modified foothold trap left by a den entrance to humanely restrain the badger, a 3-year-old, 20-pound male.

"He's lean and buff and quite the bruiser," Anchor said. "We have no idea where he came from. Everything we learn will be new for us."

Chicago Zoological Society veterinarians surgically implanted the transmitter, which contains a coiled antenna that emits a specific signal. Using a directional antenna to pick up the signals — a process called triangulation — researchers will be able to track and learn how the badger is interacting with and surviving in its environment.

Veterinarians also collected blood and tissue samples as part of a thorough health assessment and for long-term disease investigation. Anchor said veterinarians also snipped whiskers and will be using a process involving radioactive isotopes to learn what the badger has been eating.

"Badgers are designed to dig," Anchor said. "They tend to eat squirrels and woodchucks, and they will scavenge."

Badgers are part of the mustelid family of carnivorous mammals that also includes mink, weasels and wolverines, Anchor said, and with no real predators of their own, they are at the top of the local food chain.

"They are very pugnacious. Nothing messes with a badger," Anchor said. "They also have high metabolic rates. This one has been very active at night, traveling low to the ground. Their voracious appetites mean they often eat themselves out of house and home and move on to another place."

Badgers also are solitary animals, but for the year or so pups spend with their mothers, Anchor said. The males only usually produce sperm for three months in late summer, which is when they mate.

To that point, Anchor said the hope it to track the badger back to other badgers over time, so that more can be studied. As such, this badger is what biologists call a "Judas animal," revealing the location of others like it, Anchor said.

While the University of Wisconsin calls its sports teams Badgers, anchor said the animal is uncommon there, too.

"And there haven't been wolverines in Michigan since before the Europeans arrived," Anchor said.

Badgers are more readily found in the short grass prairies of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, Anchor said. In this area they can sometimes be found in Will County and in "sand country," Anchor said, meaning the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Because badgers eat other animals, their presence is an indication of the health of various habitats in Cook County, Adkesson said. By understanding the badger's habits, researchers will be able to better identify how conservation and restoration efforts can continue to benefit the health of badgers and the biodiversity of all wildlife and humans.

The Chicago Zoological Society also currently is working with the Forest Preserves of Cook County on following another animal rare to this area — an otter, which was found around south suburban South Holland.

It's mating season for otters, and the animal recently was tracked to Romeoville, Anchor said.

Copyright © 2016,Elgin Courier-News

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