American Badger, Taxidea taxus
The American badger, officially Taxidea taxus,1 belongs to the Family Mustelidae (mus-TELL-i-dee; Latin for weasel), which consists of small carnivorous animals such as weasels, wolverines, skunks, and otters. Taxidea taxus ranges from northern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois through Wisconsin—of which it has been the state animal since 1957—to southwestern Canada, and from the Mississippi River to the Rockies and the California coast.
Badgers feed on carrion and reptiles, including rattlesnakes,against whose fangs this Mustelid's tough hide is suitable armor. But their principal fare is the rodent, and humankind still benefits from their compulsive predation on prairie dogs, gophers, ground squirrels, and the like. That's a mixed benefit for Western ranchers who work their cattle on horseback, however, because adult badgers measure about 12 inches wide by 8 inches high, and their holes consequently are larger than rodent holes, and are serious hazards for running horses and other hooved animals. Toussaint Charbonneau was reminded of that on July 18, 1806, when, as Clark reported, he was:
thrown from his horse . . . in pursute of a Buffaloe, the ho[r]se unfortunately Steping into a Braroe hole fell and threw him over his head. . . . he is a good deel brused on his hip Sholder & face.
Since Clark didn't mention the fate of the horse, we may assume it didn't suffer a broken leg.
Badgers are more numerous today than wolverines, and probably were back then, too. In fact, being opportunists, they have been known to expand their territories into modern urban areas: Early in the summer of 2003 a few of Lewis's "burrowing Dog[s] of the Prarie" made pests of themselves within the city limits of Great Falls, Montana, in the neighborhood where Lewis probably saw his "mystery mammal."
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at least in England, badgers were hunted for sport by landed gentlemen with hounds and horses. Owen's Dictionary, the multi-volume encyclopedia that the Corps of Discovery is believed to have carried, contained an article on hunting that advised, "Having taken a live and lusty badger, if you would make sport, carry him home in a sack, and turn him out in your court-yard, or some other inclosed place, and there let him be hunted and worried to death by your hounds." The article listed the profits and advantages that would accrue by killing badgers: "Their flesh, blood, and grease, tho' they are not good food, yet are very useful for physicians and apothecaries for oils, ointments, salves, and powders for shortness of breath, the cough of the lungs, for the stone, sprained sinews, colt-ches, &c. and the skin being well dressed, is very warm and good for antient people who are troubled with paralytic distempers." No advice was offered concerning who was qualified to put the combative badger in the sack, nor how to do it without injury to himself.
1. The generic name (pronounced tax-ID-ee-uh) means "badger-like," in reference to the Eurasian badger. The specific epithet, pronounced TAX-us, simply means "badger."
Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust