Ontario badger project underway

Nicholas Donaldson

If you recently received information about the Ontario Badger Project in the mail, and had questions about who they are and what they’re doing, don’t worry: you’re not alone.
Josh Sayers, a biologist studying badgers in the area, sent out that information but quickly realized he should have included more information based on the calls he has received.
He has been working in the area on the project for about a month, but has been doing it in southern Ontario for a few years now.
“This started as my wife’s Master’s project in Peterborough at Trent University,” Sayers told the Times last week.
He explained that not much really is known about badgers in Ontario because they’re very rarely seen, so they want to establish a baseline knowledge for study in the future.
“Every once in a while there is a sighting or a road kill,” noted Sayers.
“That’s what we started from. Just ‘what can we learn?'”
After a few years of working in southern Ontario, Sayers decided to try Northwestern Ontario in order to glean more information.
“We wanted to do the same thing here,” he noted. “Set up this outreach and try to get people to report burrows.
“There is very little known about them here so what we are trying to do is establish a baseline,” he reiterated.
Sayers said there only are about 15-20 reliable records of badgers in the area–and most people aren’t even aware that they’re here.
“People just don’t see them, even when they are around, but lack of sightings doesn’t mean they’re not around,” he stressed.
Sayers said it is large burrows that should be noted since anything around 10 inches wide could have been dug by a badger.
Even then there is a problem, though, due to the badgers’ tendency to move.
“Badgers move all over the place,” he remarked. “They are nomadic animals so they dig these burrows and then leave, then other animals move in.”
Other animals may change the shape a bit, but most large dens originally were dug by badgers.
Sayers investigates every report and if the burrow looks promising, he will set up trail cameras and combs to catch hair in an attempt to confirm the report.
He will monitor them all summer. After June, when there no longer is the risk of injuring the young, he will set up a trap in hopes of eventually attaching a radio transmitter to a badger.
But even that’s a struggle because badgers don’t really have a neck to put a collar on while they burrow too much for a harness.
An internal device is their best option for a transmitter.
“It’s an implant,” Sayers said. “We bring them into the vet here, and then they do a small incision in the abdominal cavity and implant the transmitter inside.”
Then they can track the badgers to find out where they like to go and where they are living.
“We need to get out and do the groundwork to inform our baseline knowledge,” Sayers noted.
He also said it’s very difficult to get a population number for the animal because they are so rare.
“The two parts of population are distribution and density; it’s the second part that particularly is hard [to determine].”
Because the animal is so rare, Sayers said it’s hard not to just settle on an educated guess.
“You can get a better educated guess and add more data, but it’s very difficult to answer, ‘How many are there?’ with a degree of certainty,” he admitted.
Along with the difficulties of getting firm numbers is the problem of the endangered species listing and how it can skew public perception.
“The very nature of a rare animal means that you are going to be data-deficient when trying to figure out the endangered listing,” Sayers explained.
“Sometimes things are listed on the basis of the data deficiency to err on the side of caution.”
Sayers said one of the reasons they are doing this study is to find out if the listing could be changed.
“There is a narrative that accompanies these listings,” he remarked. “People put this idea in their head that they used to be roaming across the countryside and then people came and slaughtered them all.
“With badgers here and in other places, there is no evidence of that,” he stressed. “There is no reason to think they were ever any more common.
“As far as we know, there are as many now as there ever were.”
In fact, Sayers said he wouldn’t be surprised if badger numbers were a lot higher than most people think.
He noted there really isn’t a procedure for going back and changing endangered listings, and that theirs is one of the first projects going back to fill in knowledge gaps about an animal population.
Sayers said badgers were added to the furbearer list when a few MNRF employees heard trappers talking about them, thinking they hadn’t been around before.
Then the numbers were thought to be too low, so they were put on the endangered list.
“So they went from being completely off the radar, added to the furbearer list, to completely endangered in 20 years,” he laughed.
In the early 2000s, surveys went around before someone finally was hired full-time to monitor badgers.
That is how Sayers and his wife got involved in studying the animals.
They are a completely independent project, separate from the MNRF, and get their money through funding.
“We apply for different grants every year so it comes from different places, the university [and] federal and provincial government,” Sayers noted.
His wife recently finished her Ph.D. and she has been writing up their results for different publications, including scientific journals.
They also do a summary for funding partners and hope to get more general information online on their website at www.ontariobadgers.org
Sayers will be here until October to monitor badgers and collect reports, then he will return to southern Ontario with the results.
To report a sighting (live, dead, or a burrow), e-mail info@ontariobadgers.org or call the badger hotline at 1-877-715-9299.
You also can contact Sayers at 1-807-789-6922.
The more promptly people can call, the better, especially if it involves a dead badger.