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What it takes to win land battles — a “badgerly” spirit

by on February 20, 2012

Susan Kirks, an acupuncturist by day, became mesmerized by the plight of the American badger. Photo by Elizabeth Proctor. 

Susan Kirks, an acupuncturist by day, became mesmerized by the plight of the American badger.

Photo by Elizabeth Proctor. 

In west Petaluma, a hilly, treeless plot of land will be declared the Paula Lane Nature Preserve next month because of the tenacious work of local residents who were inspired by an equally tenacious creature — the American badger.

At the forefront of the effort is Susan Kirks, who co-founded the Paula Lane Action Network (PLAN) in 2001 in order to keep the 11-acre property out of the hands of housing developers. The 10 year land battle is coming to a close, but to Kirks there’s still work to be done. At 58, Kirks, an acupuncturist by day, has made a life’s mission out of studying, protecting, and providing PR for this much maligned member of the weasel family.

“I think there is a symbolic connection to make around the tenacity that she has shown, that badgerly spirit of digging in and not being deterred,” said Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. “She could see the value of Paula Lane, and the badger became the totem species that represented a lot of that value.”

Dolman and Kirks often exchange badger sightings since she began the BadgerMap project, a research project on badger habitats in Sonoma County.

On a recent morning, Kirks walked gingerly around the badger habitat at Paula Lane,


Photo by Elizabeth Proctor. 

identifying foraging holes from dens that are nearly identical to the untrained eye, and with an ease in which most of us distinguish apples from oranges. She guessed the age of the dens to establish when the badgers were last there, then quietly retreated from the property, preferring to observe it from Paula Lane, the road running along its easternmost side.

“I’ve kept my boundaries,” she said. “The habitat is really important to understand. When I see fresh burrows, I want to stay as far away as possible.”

Just how Kirks fell in love with badgers, of all creatures, dates back to her arrival in the neighborhood 12 years ago. Having moved to west Petaluma with her two rescued horses, it wasn’t long before Kirks began to notice holes in the ground. A friend told her they were badger dens, which piqued her curiosity. She began to spend much of her time observing the land.

Kirks said her connection to the badgers at Paula Lane is healing and has reignited her childhood passion for the outdoors.

“The funny thing is, I never intended to become a naturalist that has a body of knowledge about the American badger,” Kirks said, laughing. “But the more I came to understand the species, the more I realized what a significant role it plays in ecosystems.”

Kirks feels a special connection to the Paula Lane badgers, who are naturally reclusive

A young badger is spotted near Paula Lane. Photo by Andy LaCasse, courtesy of PLAN. 

except when defending their young. Being a bit people-shy herself, she prefers to keep her cap pulled over her eyes. And she often jokes about her “badgerly” spirit, which she deployed in full force in the fight for Paula Lane.

Indeed, badgers may not be the most cuddly of creatures, but Kirks believes they have been unnecessarily maligned. Sport hunting of badgers for their pelts is still allowed in California from mid-November until the end of February, even though the population of these black-and-white striped omnivores has been declining because of habitat loss stemming from development.

As Kirks explains, badgers are a critical species to their grassland habitat. Their dens, which they inhabit temporarily before moving on, create useful habitat for California tiger salamanders, red-legged frogs, and burrowing owls. Badgers also hunt voles, mice, and gophers, keeping rodent populations in check. What’s more, studies have shown that badgers leave enough small prey for raptors like the red-tailed hawk, and even engage in cooperative hunting with coyotes.

Badger hole

Photo by Elizabeth Proctor. 

These qualities went into several reports compiled by local biologists to demonstrate their value in the face of the proposed development.

The development proposal was dropped in 2005, and PLAN orchestrated a partnership between the City of Petaluma and the Sonoma County Open Space District. Together, they agreed on purchasing the land as an open space preserve, under the condition that PLAN maintains the land.

In addition to preserving wildlife habitat, the Paula Lane Nature Preserve will feature a perimeter walking trail, a community garden, and a hands-on environmental education program, all maintained by PLAN volunteers.

Kirks is currently working on a research project that gathers information about badger habitats between south Sonoma County and the Sonoma Coast. The project, called BadgerMap, can be found online at iNaturalist, a website that compiles species sightings. Kirks hopes it will provide helpful data to researchers at the Bay Area Open Space Council for their upland habitat database.

Kirks said knowing the location of these habitats and the corridors that connect them will help protect wildlife as they migrate into new areas under climate change.

“She’s a force to be reckoned with,” said biologist Kim Fitts. “She pretty much single-handedly corralled people into doing their part, into making statements, and doing bake sales. It’s pretty amazing. Early on, I said I just don’t see it working.”

But it did work. And the badgers at Paula Lane Nature Preserve have their neighbors to thank for it.

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Patrick on February 21st, 2012 at 12:00 am

Here’s the (missing) link to the BadgerMap project: http://www.inaturalist.org/pro

baynature on February 21st, 2012 at 12:00 am

Thanks for posting that!

Pjbergen on February 21st, 2012 at 12:00 am

With the kids in the Outside in Nature program, we’ve seen what we think are badger diggings in western Petaluma area. We are hungry for badger stories and to learn more about the badger. Susan Kirks please contact me Peter Bergen 707 225 2404 If you can make it come to the next Bull Session and meet in person ( Bull Session info) http://www.tarafirmafarms.com/

Susankirks on February 22nd, 2012 at 12:00 am

Thank you for this story about how regular people can make a difference for our environment and communities.  So many people – 70 core PLAN volunteers, many neighbors, supportive nonprofits, our friends in Martinez – Worth a Dam – elected officials who care about conservation and open space, the Sonoma Co. Open Space District, the City of Petaluma management, youth in our local schools – so many people along the way have offered helping hands, support, encouragement and interest.  We of Paula Lane Action Network are grateful and look forward to the next phase of security of protected habitat and wildlife movement and community volunteer days for project implementation and management.  Bay Nature, Liz Proctor, Dan Rademacher, thank you so much for this acknowledgment fo our 12 years of work.  Our 24/7 wildlife information line for ?s and info is 707-241-5548.

Coastalprairie on February 22nd, 2012 at 12:00 am

Our badger habitats are highly fragmented and on the brink of elimination.  Turns out that the denser and more used the roads are, the fewer badgers there are…good luck on keeping your badger habitat in tact, and on the large-scale land use planning necessary for that.  Hopefully, a landscape-level leader will emerge: DFG? State Parks? Those are the likely candidates!

baynature on February 22nd, 2012 at 12:00 am

 Where are you located? We’ve heard that EBRPD has been doing some badger studies over in east Contra Costa.

Susankirks on February 22nd, 2012 at 12:00 am

We are working collaboratively and cooperatively with a number of nonprofits, with increasing awareness of agencies like DFG. 

Also, Tanya Diamond would be an excellent contact in the South Bay if “Coastalprairie” is located in the South Bay.  The Sonoma County American Badger population, like everywhere, has unfortunately, as you noted, fragmented habitat.  Helping to raise awareness of the benefits of protecting wildlife habitat and movement corridors – to help sustain biodiversity – is critical and essential.  We are all working against time.

And, also good note Coastalprairie – aside from the existing hunting season allowed by DFG during mating season for badgers (November to February) – June through August is a time period of uncertainty and danger.  It’s dispersal season for the young, trying to go out and seek their own territories.  Encourage friends and others to drive with higher awareness and more slowly, especially at night – the time when many are lost due to vehicle strikes as they try their best to make it from one place to another – and a road happens to be part of that movement.

That, coupled with the ranchers who just kill the badgers because they see one and aren’t too fond of them, will contribute to demise as we continue to work to increase awareness and education about the benefits of American Badger to our ecosystems and landscapes.

Mtzbeavers on March 4th, 2012 at 12:00 am

 Thanks for the nod, susan! What a great article! I know how hard you work and how amazing you are and it STILL made me cry!

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