Another Take on Gophers

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A reader named Isabel left a lengthy comment on one of my “gopher” posts that I felt was good enough to merit being a guest post. She agreed, so here it is. Isabel used to volunteer as a wildlife educator at a wildlife rehab center and has written several papers on dealing with gophers, roof rats, deer, and other critters many people perceive as problems.

Help! There’s A Gopher in The Garden!

Want someone to till your garden 365 days a year – for free? Think it would be impossible to find such a worker? Enter an important native American mammal known as the pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae). Gophers make major contributions to the ecosystems they inhabit by turning compressed earth into finely crumbled loam. They bring subsoil up to ground level, reduce compaction, increase soil aeration, and fertilize the soil by adding organic matter in the form of plant matter and droppings. Few Americans are aware that when the soil of the Great Plains was pounded and compressed by millions of bison hooves, gophers worked constantly to reverse the compaction. Gopher tunnels shelter numerous other wild creatures including burrowing owls and skunks.

Gophers have existed since the Miocene Epoch (25-10 million years ago), long before our earliest ancestors. They are called pocket gophers because of their external reversible fur-lined cheek pouches which are used in underground tunneling and food gathering. Roughly the size of prairie dogs, they have stocky furred bodies, short legs and tails, strong claws, and chisel-like teeth for gnawing roots and dirt. A typical gopher mound of tunneled dirt is fan-shaped with a plugged hole in the “handle” of the fan.

Gophers have a good sense of touch and smell and eat about 75% of their body weight daily in the form of roots of grasses, roots, vegetables, and the most delicious of all – dandelions and other weeds.

Within their three year life span gophers mate and bear litters of 3-4 young from January through April. When they are unloading tunneled dirt on the surface and when young gophers are dispersing to new areas they are vulnerable to humans, dogs, and cats as well as natural predators that include raccoons, coyotes, snakes, hawks, and owls.

Unfortunately, many people view these helpful native mammals as enemies and use a cruel arsenal of lethal weaponry to crush, impale, gas, strangle, burn. and poison them. Lethal mechanical traps and poisons that are used to kill gophers can also harm children, pets, and other wildlife. Slow-moving poisoned gophers are easy catches for owls, which then ingest the poison second hand.

A Gopher in Your Garden? What To Do.

Studies show that killing gophers by any means may have little lasting effect as they can repopulate to an even greater density within six months. Habitat modification and other non-lethal approaches are vital in urging gophers to move on. The following methods have been used successfully by patient gardeners who are committed to using ecological, natural, humane techniques.

Smelly things: Gophers are very sensitive to smells. Find the gopher’s lateral tunnel by first probing with a stick to find the 1-1/2” plug in the “handle” of the fan-shaped gopher mound. Expose the entrance to the lateral tunnel that leads down to the gopher’s main tunnel a foot below ground level. Insert foul-smelling repellents such as used cat litter or a rag soaked with human urine or predator urine (available at garden supply stores) into a tin can with both ends removed. Place the can in the lateral passageway. A vacating gopher often relocates close by so gardeners may need to follow it with smelly deterrents until it moves out of the protected garden area.

Another tactic is to wet the ground in areas you wish to protect with a castor oil/water mixture by attaching a container of castor oil to a hose-powered sprayer. Gardeners Supply Co. (www.gardeners.com) and garden stores offer several castor oil-based gopher and mole repellents that do not harm plants.

Exclusion – perimeter fencing: Fencing off a specific area for ornamentals or vegetables is a reliable way to keep gophers out of that specific area. Install 1/2” inch metal hardware cloth to a depth of 2-3 feet below grade and 6-8 inches above grade around the perimeter of the area to be protected. “Bamboo root guard”, a root barrier available at garden centers, can be installed around tree roots. Any gophers that were fenced in can be trapped alive in a humane trap such as Havahart Trap #0745 or #1025 baited with a bit of whole wheat bread with peanut butter and molasses on top. Release the gopher unharmed without touching it, away from the garden.

Barrier trench & daffodils: If there is enough space in the garden, a barrier trench dug around the protected garden area serves the same purpose as fencing. The trench should be about 18” deep and 3 feet wide. A trench planted with daffodils, which are poisonous to gophers, combines two deterrents. Using toweling or a small blanket and gloves gently catch any trapped gophers and release them in a naturally wild area.

Bio control: Encouraging natural predators such as gopher snakes and barn owls can help to control gophers. You may already have a gopher snake in your garden. Barn owl boxes placed in vineyards and orchards can attract barn owl families and result in reduced gopher populations. Home gardeners need to keep in mind that barn owls may also prey on other nocturnal wildlife in their gardens that they wish to protect. Only native predators such as snakes and barn owls should be encouraged. (Domestic cats are non-native predators and kill wildlife indiscriminately. They should be kept indoors at all times for their own safety, as well.)

Scare devices: In a breezy area the vibration from a windmill-like fan seems to disturb gophers. The “Mole [and gopher] Chaser” at Gardeners Supply on the internet is one example of a windmill. The sound of the wind passing over soda pop bottles set partly into the ground is also said to frighten both gophers and rabbits. Another popular sonic device is the solar powered “Mo Go Repeller,” available from garden suppliers.

Weeds: Some gardeners permit a contained area of their garden to grow weeds, a favorite food of gophers. They find that gophers take up residence there and dine on the weeds, leaving the rest of the garden almost entirely alone.

Plant Smart: Gophers like a long row of plants that are easy to follow. Don’t plant in gopher-friendly rows.

Learning to live harmoniously with pocket gophers means learning non-lethal ways to discourage them from doing damage in certain garden areas. It means appreciating their free soil conditioning services in the less manicured parts of our gardens. Our native pocket gophers play an important ecological role. Try several of these suggestions at the same time for greater likelihood of success. They are harmless to people and plants.

Sources: California Center for Wildlife, Living With Wildlife; Bountiful Gardens and Ecology Action/Common Ground, Gopher Control; Godbe,Alex, Program Director of Hungry Owl Project at Wildcare; Quarles, William, Stopping Gophers in Your Garden,” Common Sense Pest Control XVII(4) Fall 2001.

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Will Sig
1 Tony McGurk

“A vacating gopher often relocates close by” Great bonus if you don’t like your neighbours. Nice to see recommendations to deal with the cute little guys humanely. I have been digging my veggie garden over the past 2 weeks & I have so many worms this year burrowing away. They have been working hard & doing a great job

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2 Tony

“A vacating gopher often relocates close by” Great bonus if you don’t like your neighbours. Nice to see recommendations to deal with the cute little guys humanely. I have been digging my veggie garden over the past 2 weeks & I have so many worms this year burrowing away. They have been working hard & doing a great job

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3 Will

Good catch Tony! In my case the neighbors are mostly open fields. And the one close neighbor…. well as you said.

Those worms are a sure sign you are treating your soil well!

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4 Tony McGurk

Sure am, 4 years of regular composting & mulching with straw

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5 Tony

Sure am, 4 years of regular composting & mulching with straw

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6 Anna

Well I am glad we don’t have gophers here, lol, but these are some great advices Will. Anna 🙂 PS still remember those old days when my grandmother used to sit in the morning with the stick, and kill them by hitting them. You mention some very violent methods, and like you said, can actually cause more harm, than the gopher by itself. Anna 🙂
Anna recently posted..HarvestMy Profile

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7 Keith

Great job, Will, not only of showing ways to get rid of a garden pest, but also showing why we should treat this animal with some respect and not malice.

It’s amazing to me how people treat other living things as something to be wiped from the face of the earth, just because they are an inconvenience. Everything we do, including spraying an insect with poison, has farther reaching considerations that we can understand, just as you said above.

If an animal is not dangerous, it should be relocated. If it comes back causing more inconvenience, then it should be relocated again. Put it in your Congressman’s nice back yard. Call the humane society on him/her if he harms the critter. There is always something positive you can do. 😉

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8 Will

Hi Keith – This was actually a guest post, so I can not take credit for the ideas here. I have been known to be less than compassionate with these little devils. But maybe I will try some of the suggestions next year…… maybe.

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9 Novi

So glad I found this post! I’m starting up a garden, but my neighbor and I have a little family of cute lil fuzzy gophers that go between our yards, and I don’t even want to get RID of them – just keep em from eating my produce!

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10 Patti

hi all, so I have been going out and setting traps for a couple weeks now. Just setting them gives me the creeps, but checking them completely freaks me out! I usually get neighbor to stand by incase (hahahhaha) I have actually caught one. NO LUCK yet! So far this season I have lost 2 brussel sprouts, 4 cabbages, 3 cauliflowers. NOT ONE WEED has been harmed!!!! hahahha started with the regular traps, gopher buries them, some tripped some not. Then I bought Gonzo barrel type. tripped and full of dirt first two times. getting frustrated. I got a lesson from friend who catches lots of gophers. But it hasn’t worked yet. he says that I am doing it right it just doesn’t always work. I might have to go buy the mole trap Will suggested. I want them DEAD!!! no regrets! Trying to grow my own veggies because they taste so good. have been doing it for about 4 years and this season is first time I have lost more then 3 plants. I must have a large family or multiple families of the little critters. Good luck to you all. Don’t hate me cause I am trying to be a KILLER! hahaha

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11 Bill

Fortunately I don’t have to worry about gophers now that I’ve moved. The big down side though is I don’t have a yard where I can plant a garden anymore. So I’ve decided to grow a little in my house. Will led grow lights simulate the sun enough to be able to grow my plants? I’m thinking something smaller, like peas or tomatoes. Any advice would be great!

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12 Mike B

The cinch traps work great. In Sonoma Valley we are infested. I tried the sonic emitters, the castor oil, the Cat litter, fish emulsion, predator urine all to no avail. IMO, a waste of hard earned dollars. The traps have killed all the pocket gophers on my property so far. The Moles I do not trap as I have no lawn and they do not bother my plants. The Gophers i trap with gusto. I had far too many stressful, sleepless nights from this little nemesis. Also I have added daffodils, hyacinth, narcissus, canna, freesia, ceanothus, cistus, and teucrium. The gophers avoid the bulbs and leave the latter three alone.

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13 Isabel

Buzz,

I sympathize with your frustration over gopher damage to your foundation. There are humane ways to deter gophers, even when gophers are well established. Since I don’t have complete information on your situation or your geographical location I must make some assumptions. The following comments will discuss humane ways to achieve gopher-free property that stays gopher-free.

Please take a look at http://www.creativecrittersolutions.org and click on the “Gopher” page for a list of natural strategies and an explanation of why killing gophers by any means is unnecessary. Lasting natural gopher control requires patience and persistence. In addition to the deterrents suggested on http://www.creativecrittersolutions.org and as a last resort, mix a cup of stinky fish emulsion fertilizer with a gallon of water and pour some in the gopher tunnels to make them too smelly for the gophers.

Once the gophers have left, the site mentioned above describes ways to prevent gophers from returning. Respond immediately to signs that gophers are returning. It is important to ward them off long before they settle in and do extensive tunneling. If you have gopher-friendly open space or poorly maintained residential properties nearby, you may have to develop a level of tolerance for gophers in areas other than under your house. A house’s foundation can be protected with fencing.

Additional useful information on gopher deterrents can be found at http://www.wdfw.wa.gov/living/gophers.html#conflicts. Take particular notice of the image of the Pocket Gopher Fence near the end of the page. It may be a strategy to use after the gophers are chased away from your house’s foundation.

By the way, the following statement on the Washington State wildlife site mentioned in the preceding paragraph may allay your concern regarding gophers and disease.

“Gophers are not considered to be a significant source of any infectious disease transmittable to humans or domestic animals.”

Gophers have been around for millennia, long before humans came on the scene. Even if your property did not appear to have gophers when you arrived, they were probably not far away. Gophers and other wild critters live in a world of their own in which shelter, food, and safety matter most to them. What may appear to us as their insistence on being on our property is simply our mis-reading their normal drive to find shelter, food, and safety for survival. Best wishes and thanks for commenting.

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14 C

Isabel: Thank you for your comments. Shame on people that don’t care about the horrific suffering they inflict on a small being that only wants to survive, free of fear and pain. Many methods for “getting rid of” small animals are hideously cruel.

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