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Standoff unfolds between Wisconsin and U.S. Navy over statue of a badger

Outcry in Wisconsin over beloved badger statue
Outcry in Wisconsin over beloved badger statu... 04:17

There's a statuary standoff unfolding between the state of Wisconsin and a branch of the U.S. military.

The USS Wisconsin is no stranger to strife. The carrier's 16-inch guns pounded Japan during World War II, and the battleship sailed into the fight during the first Gulf War. But now, the ship finds itself in a battle over a badger-sized piece of history.

For more than 30 years, a statue of a badger that features the state motto has been on display in the state Capitol in Madison.

"It did not surprise me at all that this has become quite, quite a thing of contention and that people are pretty upset about it," historian Erika Janick told CBS News' Kris Van Cleave.

It belongs to the Navy, but since 1988 it has sat outside the governor's office in the state Capitol where visitors rub its nose for luck.

"There are generations of people who remember going to the Capitol, touching the badger's nose; they just have a connection to it. And so it wasn't surprising at all that the state doesn't really want to give it back," Janick said.

Badgers are a big deal in Wisconsin. In the state's early days miners digging in the ground were compared to badgers. It became the state animal, the namesake of the University of Wisconsin football team, and its mascot Bucky Badger.

The badger statue was part of the original USS Wisconsin, a battleship that was scrapped after WWI. Then came another USS Wisconsin, built during WWII, the very last battleship the U.S. Navy ever made. And it could soon be the badger's new home.

The statue was crafted more than a century ago by a Milwaukee sculptor from melted-down cannon balls taken from Cuba during the Spanish-American war. It was made specifically for the original World War I-era USS Wisconsin.

When that ship was scrapped, the badger moved to the United States Naval Academy before being loaned to the state of Wisconsin for a temporary exhibit in 1988 about the same USS Wisconsin that's hoping to soon display the statue.

But ask Wisconsin lawmakers, and they find rare bipartisan agreement on where this badger should burrow.

"Were you surprised by the outcry in Wisconsin?" Van Cleave asked

"A little bit, yeah, a little bit. But I totally understand it. This is a source of pride for the Badger State," Stephen Kirkland said.

He runs the Nauticus Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, home to the USS Wisconsin, now a floating exhibit that hosts more than 370,000 visitors a year.

"We want to use the statue not just to tell the story of the badger and the statue and the history behind it, but tell the story of this battleship and its heritage and its namesake and the state it's named for," Kirkland said.

The Navy approved the museum's application to exhibit the statue. They plan to display it prominently in the wardroom, a key stopping point for tours.

But at the urging of Wisconsin's congressional delegation, the Naval Academy Museum extended the loan to the state for two more years.

"I can't imagine where it would get more use. If you don't have Bucky Badger as your mascot, I don't know if it would be as popular in any other in the country," Pocan said.

But the Navy says they don't do forever loans, so this badger is likely heading to the floating Wisconsin sooner or later.

"Would you be open to a shared custody agreement?" Van Cleave asked.

"Absolutely. Absolutely. We want to do this prudently. And with the greatest of respect. ...You know, the old adage, don't poke the bear. No one ever told us, don't poke the badger," Kirkland said.

For now, it's a stalemate. 

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