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.