The cold rain has finally stopped. Eager to leave the confines of my office, I don my boots and outerwear and head off to one of my favorite places – a steep, open, oak tree-studded ridgeline that snakes through the heart of our property. Walking along the shoulder of the ridge, the slope precariously steep to my left, and to my right rising gently to the ridgetop crest, I spot a lifeless form lying upside down with four stocky feet pointing straight up. It can’t be, I think, and nervously edge closer, fearing I may confirm my suspicion. The animal’s two-inch long claws are now visible. Feelings of surprise, confirmation, joy and sadness swirl around in my mind as I stand rigid, staring at a dead American badger.
The weight of sadness overcomes me. I roll the animal over to see his head, still needing more confirmation that this is indeed a badger. I feel my face and hands flush with warmth, fueled by my pulse of anger. We have worked so hard, I exclaim, straddling an endless tide of obstacles between two conflicting worlds - restoring an endangered ecosystem while living in a society racing forward to seize growth and prosperity
In the past, I would find possible badger sign here and there, but was it real evidence, or just a part of me holding on to a younger man’s foolish dream of restoring an ecosystem complete with apex predators? Now, there is no longer any doubt, the evidence is clear. There was a badger here, but will there be one again? A twisted cruel irony, I moan, certain confirmation only to foster more uncertainty of the future. Is this dead badger proof we are succeeding in our restoration? Or is it a fool’s errand, a painful omen that we can only slow the path to extinction?
I pause my depressive thoughts and inspect the badger to determine how it died.
It’s a male, and after a careful examination, I only find wounds on its head. I look closely at the spacing of the badger’s canine teeth, and then closely at the two deep tear wounds on its forehead. They both have the same spacing.
I feel a flutter of hope clawing its way out of my cognitive abyss. Was this guy killed by another male badger over a territorial dispute? A fight to the death over prime territory? How he died matters. It was not the pierce of a bullet or a degraded land no longer able to provide for his basic needs, but as nature has always intended - a complex tapestry of life and death working together to ensure the evolutionary resilience of his species.
Hope is now pulsing through my veins. My efforts have not been in vain. My 30-year-old dream of returning an ecosystem with apex predators once again rising to prominence.
Many know the American badger as Wisconsin’s state animal, or the University of Wisconsin’s official mascot. For me, however, the badger has always been an icon of the once vast American prairie. But now, it’s also a symbol of the power of ecological restoration.
Will the badger continue to evolve to survive the challenges of the future? I have no answers, only a resolve of hope.