Pocket gophers plague flower gardens

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By Sylvia Brockner

One of the sure signs that summer is coming to an end is the plethora of yellow wildflowers coming into bloom and the sudden reappearance of gopher mounds in your yard. Pocket gophers are small native mammals that spend most of their lives below ground. There are several species and subspecies of them, but you can’t tell them apart except for minor differences that the experts find in the laboratory.

They do vary somewhat in color depending upon where they live. Desert gophers are paler than gophers that burrow in the dark loam found in the mountains.

Pocket gophers only appear above ground at night for a brief time in the spring when they are seeking a mate. Once mated, the rather ill-tempered female drives off her mate and locates a place with deep soft soil and starts making tunnels. Most all of the burrows on one hillside belong to one female and her young. In August each year, she drives her young out to find places of their own. It is these young that appear in your garden in August and start making fresh mounds of dirt as they make a home of their own.

Pocket gophers have exceptionally long claws and strong front feet that they use for digging their tunnels. They loosen the dirt and then carrying it between their front feet and their chins. They push it out of the tunnel to form the mounds of dirt that you see. They love to get into flower gardens where the soil is soft and deep, and where there is plentiful supply of their favorite foods, which are bulbs, rhizomes and big tap roots.

Along their main tunnel, they have side tunnels that lead to storerooms that are used to store food when it is abundant so they can use it at another time when it is not so abundant. They remain active all winter, eating roots and bulbs that they find underground. During the winter they make tunnels in the snow in which they pack their diggings. When the snow melts, you will see what looks like big brown sausages of dirt curling across your yard.

Pocket gophers are fairly closely related to ground squirrels, but they remain active all winter while the ground squirrels hibernate and therefore do not need to store food. Pocket gorphers are the bane of gardeners, since they are out of sight but still eating steadily all winter. When spring finally comes after our long winter, gardeners can hardly wait to see the tulips and daffodils they planted in the fall. Instead, they have no spring bloom because the gophers have eaten all the bulbs.

I once accidentally found a gopher’s storeroom, which was packed full of lily bulbs from my garden. I took them all back and replanted them, but they were small and did not grow well. By the time they would have been big enough to blossom, the gophers had found them again and either eaten them or carried them off to another storeroom. The only way to have flowering bulbs is to trap all your gophers in the fall or to plant your bulbs in wire cages that the gophers can’t chew through.

Making hardware cloth cages is tedious, hard, time-consuming work and is also rather expensive. I have always tried to trap gophers in my yard, but there are always new arrivals from the surrounding parks and other property. Usually I am successful, but if I miss one, I know it in the spring when I have no bloom in my garden. Last winter, one ate most of my oriental poppy roots, so this spring I have only a few very small poppies. Over the years, I have lost several hundred dollars worth of tulips, daffodils and iris to thieving gophers.

They are very willing to take over the tunnels vacated by other gophers. So once established, they are difficult to get rid of. Their tunnels are only a fraction larger than they are, so there is not enough room to turn around, but they can crawl backward just as readily as forward. They are also very clean animals and build a side room off the main tunnel for a toilet. If the room becomes too smelly, they simply fill the entrance with dirt and seal it off, and then dig a new toilet. They also have another side chamber that serves as a bedroom and nursery. Here the female has a soft bed of plant material that helps keep her warm during the winter.

Gophers are seldom seen for they only come above ground to mate in the spring. You can occasionally see the forefeet and nose of a gopher in the early evening as she pushes a load of dirt out of her burrow at the edge of a dirt mound. Dogs, foxes and coyotes often try to dig out gophers but seldom succeed as the gophers escape to some distant part of their tunnel system. Their worst enemy is the badger, which can dig better and faster than the gopher. The name pocket gopher comes from the fact that they have a pocket on the outside of each cheek. It is fur-lined and is used to carry food, not dirt. They can turn them inside out with their sharp claws to empty and clean them out.

If you see new gopher mounds in your yard in August, trap them now before the snow falls or you won’t have a garden or much else alive come spring. Gopher traps are available at hardware stores, and it’s a bit of a job to place them properly.

Buy two traps. Dig out their tunnel near the mound so that you can place a trap going in each direction. Put a board or stone over the entrance to keep a dog from trying to dig it out, and wire the traps to some sturdy stake or they may drag them off. If you don’t put in two traps, one going in each direction, they are apt to come around through their tunnels and cover the single trap from behind. They are fighters and survivors. Good luck!