The stocky animal broke out into the open, hugging the ground closely with its fluid gait. Closely behind followed a second critter of similar size but with an elongated body, galloping shallowly toward the first. As the distance narrowed between the two racing animals, the second leaped at the first, narrowly missing it. The first made a sharp turn, reversing course in my direction. I realized I was witnessing one of nature’s epic battles between predator and prey.
Both animals raced toward me, and I could see the predator closing in on its prey. It leaped with exposed fangs and claws, landing at the head of the prey. The prey rolled its body, flipping the predator and revealing its white underbelly. With the predator off balance, the prey rose on its short hind legs, then struck at the predator with its four incisor teeth. The predator returned the gesture, lunging at the prey’s neck. Once again, the prey did a body roll, freeing himself. The prey scurried into the tall grass, the predator in hot pursuit.
I couldn’t believe what I just witnessed! A battle between predator and prey, with the last scene played out just feet from me. And what really got my heart pumping was that this was no “ordinary” predator. It was a least weasel – the smallest carnivore in the world, and an at-risk species in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin DNR. The prey was a meadow vole.
Least weasels are a grassland species and prefer moist to wet prairies. Besides being small (6” – 7”), they differ from Wisconsin’s other two weasel species (short-tail and long-tail) because they lack black on the tip of the tail. Their fur turns white in the late fall and winter months. The least weasel is reported to eat 40% – 60% of its body weight a day. They can kill animals many times their size with a typical diet of voles, mice, rabbits, birds and frogs.
My “weasel adventure” didn’t end here. A few days later, I spied another animal out in the open. As it was walking away from me, I could see a stocky, flat body on short stout legs. It walked bowlegged, swung its legs outward, and flapped what looked like oversized feet with each stride. The swaggering motion reminded me of the gait of a grizzly bear. I knew this was no woodchuck or raccoon. As I carefully moved closer, I could see those oversized feet were actually feet with long claws. Excited, I hurried closer. The animal turned to look at me, revealing its triangular head and white stripe running down the center. My look was brief, and the animal quickly disappeared into the tall grass, but I knew I had just seen Wisconsin’s state animal, Taxidea taxus - better known as the badger!
What an amazing gift! I witnessed Wisconsin’s smallest weasel and one of its largest, the badger. Both living in the grasslands we restoration practitioners toil to restore. When the days of doubt come calling and lay heavy on my heart, I will remember these experiences to help pull me through it!