When it comes to encounters with badgers—a relatively common mammal, but one so rarely seen that most Texans don’t even know they are native to the state—North Padre Island resident Tom Howe has a good story. One morning last August, the 67-year-old was driving along Padre Island National Seashore after a fishing outing. When he saw something moving between the surf and the dunes, he thought it was a raccoon or maybe a coyote pup. But the wet, bedraggled creature digging in the sand “put its head up when I got closer, and I go, ‘Oh, that’s a badger. What’s it doing out here?’ ”

Howe, a retired United Methodist minister, had only recently learned that badgers lived in the area, but he knew seeing one in daylight must be unusual. “They’re pretty nocturnal,” he says. Badgers are part of the Mustelidae family, which also includes otters, weasels, and wolverines. Howe snapped photos as the animal snuffled around in the sand looking for ghost crabs and then washed itself off in the surf before digging some more. “I stayed in my car because I didn’t want to disturb it or approach it, out of respect,” he says.

Howe’s Facebook post was picked up by Chron.com and multiple other news outlets, with experts weighing in on how rare it was to see a badger in daylight, or at all. Many readers—myself included—were surprised that the odd creatures even live here. Then I saw one, early on a Sunday morning, while birdwatching in North Texas in February. It happened so quickly that I couldn’t take a photo, but I’ll never forget that little striped face and that long, flat body waddling away.

Who Knew Badgers Are All Over Texas?
The badger that Tom Howe spotted on North Padre Island.Tom Howe

“Badgers are so weird,” says Jonah Evans, the nongame and rare species program leader at Texas Parks and Wildlife who also teaches courses on tracking the mysterious mustelid and other critters. Since badgers are such hermits, finding their tracks is often the best way to get information on their whereabouts, whether that means observing footprints (their front feet are larger than the back ones and are “extremely pigeon-toed,” says Evans); spotting their burrows, which are called setts; or recognizing small holes dug at sites where they’ve foraged. Badgers are fossorial, meaning they spend most of their lives underground, where they sleep, raise their young, and wait out inclement weather (they don’t hibernate, but they do go into one- or two-day “torpors”). They’re thought to live all over the state, except far East Texas, but they’re especially prevalent in the dry grasslands of the Panhandle and the western and southwestern parts of Texas, which have soil that is friable, or easy to dig in. That matters because badgers need to build their lodgings and dig out ground squirrels, prairie dogs, and the other burrowing rodents that make up much of their diet. Those long front claws and powerful short legs make them digging machines; in fact, they are believed to be the fastest-digging mammal alive. And they’re famously cantankerous. Like their weasel cousins, they can be irritable and aggressive—not the most delightful combination. “They’re scrappy thugs you don’t want to mess with,” says Evans, who pointed me to footage of a badger fighting off a pair of coyotes. “They’re just a strange and cool animal with an interesting life strategy,” Evans says.

“Badgers are one of my favorite things to talk about,” says John Tomeček, an associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at Texas A&M University. “It’s a bucket list species for me to get to work on, because there’s really no available money to do any research on them, and that’s one of the reasons we know so little about them.” Research funds are mainly allocated to critically endangered wildlife or to populations that need to be controlled, such as feral hogs, while middle-of-the-road critters tend to be left alone. “We don’t know much about [badgers] from a scientific sense,” Tomeček says, noting that they’re believed to have declined in terms of their range throughout most of the state. “In the seventies and earlier, you’d have badgers in and around Austin; you’d have them throughout the Blackland Prairie.” Outside of Texas, they’re found across the western and central U.S. and in Canada and Mexico.

Tomeček delights in sharing some little-known facts. Though badgers are famously fierce predators, they will also happily dine on carrion, caching carcasses underground to hide them from other predators (see this very strange case of a badger burying a dead calf). They poop in shallow latrines that they dig themselves. “They’re weird, and they’re antisocial—they just want to be left alone, and if you get too close to their den, they’ll let you know,” Tomeček says. When confronted, badgers make a hissing sound punctuated by low growls. They might also musk you—not as bad as a skunk’s spray, but not fun. But Tomeček stresses that badgers have lots of benefits too: “They help aerate the soil, manage rodent and insect populations, and overall, they contribute to a more balanced biome,” he tells me.

“If I could find some organization or somebody that wanted to fund badger research, I would die and go to heaven, because I would love to know if we’ve lost enough of them that we ought to be doing something to help them,” says Tomeček. “But we don’t know enough even to know that.”

Dana Karelus, a mammalogist at Texas Parks and Wildlife, concurs. “We think they’re doing okay, but we don’t have data on them.” She emphasizes the importance of iNaturalist, a social media app through which citizen scientists share wildlife observations and get help identifying species from the community; scientists have come to rely on the site to get a rough picture of where lesser-studied species, such as badgers, live.

Searching the site, I didn’t see a badger pin in the map for Denton County, so I added a “casual observation,” a sighting without media to support it. Alarmingly, most of the posted photos of badgers in the state are of roadkill; the animals have few natural predators in Texas, and cars are one of their biggest threats. But even evidence of dead badgers is invaluable for scientists who want to know where they are making their homes. Tomeček says iNaturalist regularly surprises him. “Someone observed a badger a handful of years ago between San Antonio and Houston on I-10. I never would have guessed—I would have said, ‘No, they’re not there anymore.’ ”

Going down a badger hole, I messaged OddFitz, a prolific poster of live badger photos on the site, and we spoke the next day. Todd Fitzgerald, a gregarious former banker from Fort Worth who jokes that iNaturalist has taken over his life, has seen badgers over the years on his family’s deer lease near Rotan, in the Rolling Plains, and on his frequent travels documenting wildlife. “People have this idea that badgers are aggressive and standoffish, and they can be wary, but I’ve always found them to be mostly curious,” he says. “They look at you, and then they go about their business . . . and that walk—it’s”—he paused, searching for the right word—“implacable.”

Stephanie Brady, the founder of Wild West Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, in Amarillo, regularly gets calls from frightened homeowners who have a badger that won’t leave: “They’re bullies, unless you know how to handle them.” She’ll coax them out of garages or from under play structures, often with just a broom and an attitude. Most of her badger patients are babies that are found alone and need to be bottle-fed before they can be released, at about a year and half. “They’re the cutest things you’ve ever seen in your life, but they imprint very easily,” she says. Her goal is always to return critters to the wild (Frita, a badger who was found last year in a ditch in Potter County and was named for her “Frito-like smell,” will be released this spring), but Polly, the center’s “badger education ambassador,” became habituated to humans and “doesn’t love the outdoors,” so she splashes in a baby pool and goes on school field trips wearing a custom-made harness. Polly also acts as the resident chaos instigator, breaking herself and other animals out of their enclosures. “She gets into everything and knows how to open the refrigerator,” Brady says. “Badgers are so smart.”

It’s not possible to write about badgers without mentioning the mythical badger-coyote connection. “I’ve heard Native American stories about badgers and coyotes teaming up—it’s a crazy and cool symbiosis,” says TPWD’s Evans. There is plenty of evidence (and even an adorable viral video) to back up the theory that the two share an unusual bond. “Badgers dig, and the coyote is waiting at the other end—helping each other out,” says Fitzgerald, who has witnessed the duo hunting together at least twice, from a deer blind on his property. Tom Howe, of Padre Island, had also seen this incredible interspecies cooperation, in Yellowstone National Park, and he sent me photos.

Though my badger wasn’t frolicking with a coyote, I realized that the sighting put me in a special club. But the fact that we see mostly dead badgers is worrying. Beyond road collisions, humans pose other threats: ranchers might kill badgers that have taken lambs or kid goats, Tomeček says, and last year Brady was called to save a badger that had been shot after a man got out of his car to try and pet it and it bit him (he walked back to his vehicle and got his gun). Despite the efforts of the emergency vet, it did not survive. “People just really need to leave wildlife alone,” she says, bitterly.

In his recent story about the Panhandle wildfires, my colleague Peter Holley wrote that the very first dead animal he saw was a soot-covered badger curled in a ball by the road—a small loss in the wake of the up to 10,000 cattle and other animals that perished in the tragedy, but a loss nonetheless. It made me wonder if some badgers had been able to survive by hiding in their burrows, and if other animals might’ve sought refuge there. Brady deployed her team to wildfire-afflicted areas near the Canadian River, looking for injured animals but finding very few. “We were surprised, and then I realized that wild animals have that extra instinct . . . when they know something’s happening.” She says they saw fresh footprints of possums, raccoons, a bobcat, and a coyote. “It gave us hope that they knew something was coming and they fled. But they had to come back to that area to get water, and they were okay.”

Last summer, Howe saw the Padre Island badger, which he nicknamed Billie, a few more times and identified its burrow and some tracks near the dunes. “A lot of people just drove by; they didn’t have a clue in the world that it was even there,” he says. Howe took more pictures and videos of Billie but didn’t post them. “I didn’t want to draw any more attention. . . . I was afraid it would get run over or that people would harass it.” Six weeks or so after his first encounter, a high tide washed in, and he didn’t see Billie after that. “We got a lot of rain, and so my guess is that it replenished the water supply, and he went back to where he was supposed to be.”