Army of Darkness: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel

I don’t know why the previous inhabitants of this house kept the yard so wet. “Over watered”, I noted when I originally saw it. But it’s since occurred to me that the purpose might have been to suppress the gophers and preserve the lawn while they were attempting to pass the house off to us. Gophers don’t like such wet conditions and may have been staying next door.

My first encounter with gophers was the morning after having set out some parsley plants. As dawn broke, I went out to inspect my crop. Some plants were missing entirely, others had been pulled part way into the soil, some were leaning sickeningly askew, and one lay on its side, its roots gone entirely.

My first assumption was that gophers were little more than the dandelions of the West. You tend your lawn and garden, irrigating and planting, and you coincidentally create a perfect habitat for them to make mischief.

But I misunderstood them. Dandelion, an exotic from Eurasia, grows well enough on its own, but it really thrives in human-made landscapes—lawns, gardens, road medians. Gophers were here long before we were; they have survived in North America quite well without us since the late Pleistocene, which ended only about 12,000 years ago, about the time that humans are thought to have crossed the Bering land bridge. They may exploit our lawns and gardens, reforestation attempts, and crops, but really they don’t much care what we do. It’s their territory.

Gophers are found in most U.S. states and the southern Canadian provinces. In North America, there are some 16 distinct gopher species and many subspecies. These North American gophers (family Geomyidae), as is true of their kin elsewhere, are subterranean, herbivorous mammals that spend virtually their entire lives underground in burrow systems. They are known as “pocket gophers” because of fur-lined pouches in their cheeks in which they store food, while digging or foraging. They excavate extensive burrow systems that are composed of a main tunnel with lateral branches that end in a fan-shaped mound with the entrance sealed by a plug of soil. Mounds are generally the first sign of the gopher’s presence. Tunnels are usually 4 to 18 inches beneath the surface, but gophers also construct dens and larders that can be as much as 6 feet below the surface.

Pocket gophers are sometimes confused with moles. But moles are smaller, lack pockets on the sides of their cheeks, and are insectivorous. Moles are also much less invasive (and destructive) and forage by pushing the soil aside, rather than tunneling through it. For the most part, moles remain on the surface. Gophers move vast quantities of soil (as much as 4 tons per year). A single tunnel system may in total be as much as 200 yards in length.

Gophers feed mostly on the plant roots they expose in their digging. But they also eat tubers, corms, stems, and leaves of herbaceous plants and grasses. Some young shrubs and trees are eaten, and young conifer plantations and reforestation sites can be devastated by gophers. Sometimes entire plants are pulled into the tunnels, as was depicted in the movie Caddy Shack.

Gophers range from about 5 inches long to as much as 1 foot, and they weigh anywhere from a little more than an ounce to a couple of pounds. Males are larger than females. Gophers are solitary and highly territorial. They are most active in spring when the males seek female companionship by digging into the burrows of females to mate. Gophers are mature at about a year. In colder climates, females have one litter a year, but in warmer climates such as mine, females may have two or more litters in a year with as many as 12 offspring. Gestation is around 3 weeks.

My gophers are probably Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae), named for Paul-Émile Botta, a naturalist who studied gophers and other mammals in the West in the 1820s and 1830s. My first inclination was to ignore them. When I went out in the morning, I would smooth down their mounds; they never even noticed. Then I began to fall through the surface into their tunnels. When I planted trees and found gopher mounds in the watering depressions I had constructed, I knew the gophers and I could not happily coexist.

My first control measure was to attempt to poison them with the baited oat seed that the previous inhabitants had left. After a time, little patches of oat grew up where I had applied the bait. As far as I could tell, the gophers never bothered with the bait.

Next I hired the “Gopher Guy” whose ads promised to “get them on the run”. His technique (poison) was effective only for 3 weeks or so, after which the telltale gopher mounds appeared again. And in light of that, the gopher guy was expensive.

Searching the internet, I found a system in which propane is pumped into the tunnels and then ignited—no more tunnels, no more gophers. Great for an alfalfa farmer maybe, but I don’t have a pickup truck to carry the propane tanks and pump apparatus. However, I did buy a 60-foot flexible plastic tube designed to have one end attached to a car exhaust and the other inserted into a gopher tunnel. The idea was to asphyxiate the gophers with carbon monoxide. It didn’t seem to have any effect on mine, though.

At the local hardware store, I was told that to control gophers I need to trap them. And in fact this has proved the most effective remedy. But it’s not for the kind hearted. Gopher traps do not quickly (and painlessly) snap the animal’s backbone as does the standard mouse trap. Deployed gopher traps have a pair of opposing spikes that impale the gopher when it trips the trap, sometimes killing it quickly but more often not so quickly. I conceal my activities from my children and don’t speak of them to my wife. And trapping gophers does no more than decrease their numbers. If neighbors are less diligent than you are, the gophers simply move in to the unoccupied digs from next door.

I see no long-term solution. My plants will be less vulnerable when they are larger. And I’ve abandoned the idea of a carpet of grass in most parts of the yard. I will make paths that weave through islands of mulch that support plants, and maybe I’ll move to where there are no gophers.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 16th, 2011 at 4:34 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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24 Responses to “Army of Darkness: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel”

  1. JIm said:

    So your answer is to kill, kill, kill. Great. Nice person!

    • Nick said:

      Dear Jim,

      Thanks for posting. My guess is that you’ve never lived with gophers. I’m certainly open to suggestions. Please offer them, if you have any. By the way, I take no pleasure in killing gophers, and it’s not easy to get them anyway; my kill-to-attempt rate is very low.

  2. percy said:

    Hello! Your gophers are worse than my armadillos.
    I thought they were bad enough — They dig numerous holes, going for earthworms or fire ant queens.
    The holes prevent the self-propelled lawn mowers from moving until they are pulled or lifted out of the holes. The terror is worse after transplanting small plants, then watering them.

    By the way, I live in a creek swamp in Louisiana.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Percy,

      Things could always be worse, I guess, but it sounds to me as though your armadillos are worse than my gophers; they don’t stop lawn mowers anyway. It’s true though that the gophers are targeting plants and not ants. Thanks for taking the time to write.

  3. pat said:

    My best luck was with a malamute/black lab dog named Tamlis and her buddy, Honey, a sammy/golden cross. They would wait at tunnel ends and listen quietly until the gophers appeared and became the catch of they day. Other than picking up a few dead varmits, my yard, was free of gophers and rats. Of course the underground den she dug in the ground was a bit disruptive, but it was only 1 large hole. The gophers came back when Tam died. Honey just was not up to the task alone, but she was still a good ratter.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Pat,

      Yes, I have friend who have dogs who do not have the extent of problem that I have. We have small children and don’t feel like taking on more responsibilities. We have a cat who is apparently getting old. He use to be a terror to the bunnies who would nest in much used in a blueberry patch. I let him out when a gopher was working on a hole near our patio. He made only one relatively feeble attempt to get it and then simply observed the gopher when it would periodically poke its head out. Thanks for taking the time to post.

  4. Anne Truesdale said:

    HI nick’
    Thank you for another informative article about the wild life that we are all making a concerted attempt to drive out of their territory and homes. We have been plagued from time to time with voles. Damage has been enormous. We are at last free for the 5th year. May not last, but life is currently good so to speak.We will never get rid of all of the so called pests, but I really think we need to give them a little credit for surviving our efforts to irradicate them! Keep up your great articles. they are always good and full of info.

    • Nick said:

      Thanks very much, Anne. I certainly agree with you. In respect to the “so called pests”, I’ve heard nature compared with a fine watch. You would not want to take it apart and leave out even the smallest piece when putting it back together.

  5. Nancy A. said:

    I tried rolling moth balls down their holes and the little dirt devils pushed them out by morning. I have learn to pot my precious plants, find plants that roots they don’t like eating and trying to live in peaceful co-existence along with all the woodland creatures we bought into 🙂

    • Nick said:

      Dear Nancy,

      I may yet have to start planting everything in wire baskets. Thanks for taking the time to post.

  6. Debbie Fitch said:

    What a sad story! Does anyone know if Gopher Spurge is effective at repelling gophers? It is an interesting-looking euphorbia that is perennial where I live in Maryland. It has the unfortunate habit of spreading all over the garden, but at least I don’t have gophers. Probably just a coincidence.

    • Nick said:

      Thanks, Debbie. I don’t know anything about Gopher Spurge; I’ll check it out.

  7. Hanovergal said:

    I live in southeastern CT (z6) and do not have a gopher problem at this time. Hopefully, the gophers will not adapt to our area. Sounds horrible! I’ve dealt with deer, woodchucks, voles, mice, chipmunks and squirrels – sometimes with success and sometimes with no luck at all. Jan

    • Nick said:

      Dear Jan,

      Woodchucks can be pretty bad too; I’ve seen whole structures undermined. Thanks for taking the time to post.

  8. Amy said:

    I too have been fighting gophers since we moved in to a 2 acre property 3 years ago. I’m not giving up. I plant expensive plants in gopher baskets and all vegetables are grown in raised beds lined with gopher wire. I also trap them and resorted to hitting them over the head with a 2×4. I use a great trap called the gophinator which can be purchased online.
    I’ve killed over 100 in the last 3 years. Good luck!

    • Nick said:

      Dear Amy,

      Your better than I am. I think I use the gophinator too, but my kill-to-attempt ratio is pretty low—certainly less than 50%. I haven’t used wire baskets yet, but I guess they work well. Thanks for the information. I haven’t given up, but I admit that I’m discouraged sometimes.

  9. Sooze said:

    Thank you for the most informative bit on the beasty pests.
    I won’t live with them, but at least I know now I shouln’d try to obliterate them: much like cockroaches: they will survive.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Sooze,

      Yes, I think that’s right. You can keep their populations down, but eradication is out of the question. Thanks for posting.

  10. Pat Dawe said:

    Buy a large dog. They tend to be territorial too, and will mark your yard with their urine.

    • Nick said:

      Dear Pat,

      Good idea. That would no doubt help. I know people who have gopher snakes (not as pet, though), and they help too.

  11. elspeth grant bobbs said:

    When I saw my bean sprouts disappearing underground, it was time for action.I found this recipe in a favourite garden book.Find bacon wrappers, write Please go away on them and push them down gopher holes. Honestly it worked for a year or two. Now I use windmills, they send a vibration down and you use them to herd the blighters away .

    • Nick said:

      Dear Elspeth,

      Thanks for the tips. What sort of windmills do you use? I would love to find a long-term solution that does not involve poisons, traps, or predators.

  12. Mack McGilvrey said:

    Try a a blackhole gopher trap. They worked great for me in the past. Easy to set with just a tube and a trip wire inside. Much easier and safer than the nasty jawed gopher traps.

    • Nick said:

      Thanks, Mack. I’ll check it out.

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