What began as a gas-drilling accident this past spring turned into an unusual wildlife rehabilitation success story.
Three motherless baby badgers were returned to the wild this summer after a local wildlife rehabilitator took them under her wing.
In late April, a company was fracking for natural gas on a private ranch near Bayfield when one of the site workers reported a baby badger sighting to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Officials did not disclose the name of the company or the property owners.
When district wildlife manager Stephanie Schuler arrived on the scene, she found not one but three baby badgers in a burrow that had filled up with water from the drilling.
There were two males and one female, estimated to be 6 to 8 weeks old, said Brenda Miller of Roubideau Rim Wildlife. The organization operates as a nonprofit, so Miller takes in wildlife when money allows.
When a local mammal rehabilitator contacted Miller about fostering the badgers, Miller immediately insisted the babies be returned to where they were found.
"You should always wait to see if the mother comes back," Miller said. "It's a myth that animals handled by humans will be rejected by their mothers. They should always be put back."
But in this case, the badgers appeared to be orphaned, and Miller unexpectedly found herself mothering the three creatures for the next three months. Through trial and error, she found that the badgers, a sharp-clawed species and avid diggers, needed a habitat conducive to burrowing and creating tunnels.
"They started out in a cage and quickly got really lethargic and depressed," Miller said. "I realized they really needed to dig, so I put them in a bigger cage where they could do that. I had happy badgers within 24 hours."
Badgers' ornery temperament and nocturnal habits render this situation highly unusual.
"They're underground during the day, so this is unique to see badgers come up and watch their behavior," Miller said.
Jennifer Dewey, an animal transporter certified through Colorado Parks and Wildlife, released the animals on a ranch in Ignacio and said in her four years working with CPW, this is her first badger encounter. Miller said the same.
Miller would not disclose specifics on feeding and the rehabilitation process, fearing people will ignorantly try to foster wild animals.
"People need to leave wildlife alone," Miller said. "And if you have to handle a wild animal, handle it with the assumption it can get you sick."
Unfortunately, between Roubideau and the local vet clinic, between one half and two thirds of the intakes are put down, Miller estimated. Illness and dehydration are the most common causes.
Badgers are typically weaned from their mothers around 4 months old when they're deemed old enough to fend for themselves, so the three stayed with Miller from May through July. When they were released, each weighed between 11.5 and 14 pounds.
But this case is an exception, not a rule. Wildlife is not typically so successfully rehabilitated, and calculating precisely how many species are displaced by fracking is difficult. Miller and CPW officials couldn't quote a figure, but they said sage-grouse and species of deer are often disrupted by drilling as well.
"In regards to fracking, this may have been one of just a handful of situations," Dewey said. "But it's not uncommon when there's that type of activity in wilderness locations. I don't think we always see the evidence, because people won't necessarily have the wherewithal to contact Parks and Wildlife. We're depending on honesty."