Everything You Need to Know About Gophers

valley pocket gopher

valley pocket gopher

If you have noticed lots of gopher mounds on your property in recent days, do not jump to the conclusion that you have done something egregiously wrong and have thus been singled out for punishment. At this time of year, gophers are everywhere. We are, in fact, at the height of the gopher season.
Gophers mate and give birth from January to April, with March and April being the peak months for gopher breeding. Gophers, which belong to the rodent family, live for as long as 12 years. Females generally give birth to one litter per year, with about five offspring per litter. Males take no part in gopher family life, and the young disperse as soon as they are weaned from their mother’s milk.
Gophers are extremely territorial, which is good news if you have a gopher problem. You may see a dozen mounds in your backyard, but it is probably the work of a single animal, since one gopher will inhabit an area as large as 1,000 square feet. The many crisscrossing burrows made by the gopher form an elaborate underground network. In fact, the word gopher comes from the French gaufre, which means honeycomb.
Backyard gardeners are often quite sensitive about killing gophers. It seems a shame to extinguish the lives of such cute little furry creatures, especially when your interest, as a cultivator of the earth, is in nurturing rather than destroying life. Farmers, however, may not be subject to such sentiments. Gophers can take a significant toll on any cultivated crop – from alfalfa to tomatoes to orchard trees – since they consume plant roots indiscriminately. The dirt from their mounds also will clog mowing machines in hay fields in southeastern Minnesota, where alfalfa hay is a major crop and gopher mounds are a major problem, and there is actually a special county clerk in charge of paying a bounty of 40 cents for every gopher that is killed. Gopher bounty hunters receive payment for each pair of gopher feet that they bring to the clerk.
If you decide to become a gopher hunter, you first must locate the main gopher run, found at a depth of four to 18 inches below ground level. The fanned-up mounds you see in your lawn or vegetable garden are the soil excavated by the gopher while tunneling. These mounds are at the end of side tunnels that angle up from the main run. To locate the main run, find the plug or exit hole of a new mound; the soil of new mounds is softer and grainier, from recent excavation, than the soil of old mounds. The exit hole is always at the lower, flatter side of the mound.
With a sharp stick or metal bar, probe eight to 10 inches away from the plug, in a semi-circle, on the plug side of the mound. When your probe reaches the main run, it suddenly drops two to three inches. Dig up the soil until you uncover the gopher run and then set two traps in it pointing in opposite directions. Macabee brand traps seem to be the sturdiest of those that are available locally.
Use rocks to cover the two openings of the run where the traps are placed or lay a board over the entire excavation and put loose soil around the edges to exclude light. If the gopher sees light, it will push soil in the direction of the light, springing the trap shut. If soil is pushed too tightly back into the hole behind the trap, the gopher will stay away from the area. A gopher moves toward a trap because of curiosity aroused by air movement, however faint, coming through the newly created opening in its run.
Before touching the traps you are about to set, put on gloves. You also might wash the traps in soapy water or sift soil over them to take away your scent. A gopher has an extraordinary sense of smell to compensate for its virtual blindness and will stay away from a trap that has the slightest trace of human scent. It is a good idea to attach strings to your traps, and tie the strings to stakes above ground. This will make it easy to retrieve your traps, which should be checked daily. Gophers also have been known to abscond with unsecured traps.
Gophers can be kept out of small garden areas by exclusion. Enclose the area with half-inch mesh wire that extends two feet below and two feet above ground level. Unfortunately, there is no solid evidence that circling the garden with poisonous plants – of any kind – will deter gophers.
Tip of the week: Now is the time to plant vegetable and flower gardens for spring and summer enjoyment. Take advantage of the last gasp of winter, the shorter and cooler days that we still enjoy, to establish young plants. Once the heat sets in, which it may do in the Valley as early as the first week in April, it is more difficult to bring stress-free plants into the world. The success of annuals – such as tomatoes, corn, marigolds and petunias – often is determined by their first two weeks of growth in the garden. Soil preparation with lots of compost is important; building a raised bed for your flowers and vegetables would be even better. But mild weather, also, during the first few days of garden growth, may be critical to the success of annual plants.

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