Twice this year, I’ve received questions about a native mammal popping up in unexpected places. No, not a grizzly bear, for goodness sakes. Think much smaller. Try a badger and a long-tailed weasel.
Both mammals showed up on their native prairie of northcentral Montana, but where they’re not always visible to humans. The questions were: Why have I never seen this animal before?
Let’s answer that question with a riddle: If you see an animal for the first time in an area where it’s native and has never disappeared, does that animal exist?
Both the badger and its cousin, the weasel are carnivores. Meat eaters.
For badgers that means mostly ground squirrels, or gophers as we call them, but also rabbits, reptiles and insects. No vegetables on a badger’s menu.
They roam from the central and western Canadian provinces south into central Mexico. In Montana look for badgers most anywhere, though they especially like grassland communities and open plains.
The badger looks like no other Montana mammal of the prairie. Built low to the ground with short, muscular legs and massive curved front claws., it’s a digging machine. It can even dig faster than fleeing prey.
According to “The Wild Mammals of Montana” by Kerry Foresman, badgers will dig new dens almost daily during the summer searching for food; females will also move several times during the spring and summer using many maternal dens.
As fall approaches the digging frenzy slows and by winter they settle into a single den. In winter, badgers spend long periods underground in a state of torpor that’s not exactly hibernation, but it does slow down their heart rate and reduces their body temperature.
Mostly nocturnal when active, badgers home ranges stretch from less than a quarter of a mile to almost a mile and a half, depending on food and habitat.
Considering the animal is underground a lot and active, perhaps, half the year at night, it’s easy to see how it could escape human detection in a rural area. And Montana has a lot of rural area on the prairie.
Much the same holds true for the long-tailed weasel. A slender creature – adults measure 13 to 16 inches long and weigh six to nine ounces – this member of the weasel family is found throughout Montana, but prefers open habitats and grasslands.
They are nocturnal and mostly eat much the same prey as badgers.
And if badgers are digging machines, then weasels are eating fools. Foresman reports that in captivity a long-tailed weasel will eat up to 40 percent of its body weight daily. That’s like a 200-pound person eating 80 pounds of food every day. Whoa. That’s a lot of Fritos.
To maintain that metabolism, weasels constantly look for food year-round. When prey is abundant, home ranges may average 25 acres. But when the pickins’ are slim, weasels may scour 250 acres or more for a meal.
So maybe the question about seeing an animal for the first time in its native habitat should be: Is a species easier to spot if it is doing well and numerous?
Or is it easier to see if the species is on hard times and searching more for limited food? The answer is probably yes.