Neighborhood Critters – Gophers

Are you one of those people who throw around the term gopher willy-nilly? Did you know that the term gopher actually refers to various types of rodents, including several ground squirrels; however, there is a true gopher, the pocket gopher!

Description: The pocket gopher, found primarily in the U.S. Midwest and West, take their name from the fur-lined cheek pouches, or pockets, used for carrying food. These critters provide an essential service for the ecosystems in which they live, tilling and fertilizing the Earth as they burrow under ground.

A typical pocket gopher can move approximately two to four tons of soil to the surface each year. This enormous achievement reflects the gopher’s important ecological function. Their tunnels are built and extended, then gradually fill up with soil as they are abandoned. The old nests, stored food and excrement are buried well below the surface where the vegetation and droppings become deep fertilization. The soil thus becomes mellow and porous after being penetrated with burrows. Soil that has been compacted by trampling, grazing, and machinery is particularly benefited by the tunneling process.

Many mammals, large birds, and snakes eat gophers and depend on their activities to create suitable living conditions. Salamanders, toads, and other creatures seeking cool, moist conditions take refuge in unoccupied gopher burrows. Lizards use abandoned gopher burrows for quick escape cover.

Diet: Pocket Gophers are herbivores, primarily feeding on the roots of the plants they encounter while burrowing underground. These advantageous critters, in brief bouts, will also feed right outside a tunnel exit. Dandelion roots are an important part of a pocket gopher’s diet, but the entire plant can be consumed if it can be pulled into the tunnel. Consumption of grasses and forbs (plants that die back in winter) make up a bulk of the diet, but many agricultural crops are readily consumed, especially alfalfa.

Habitat: Pocket Gophers are burrowing animals, living in a variety of habitats including some that are particularly rocky. Although pocket gophers seem to prefer lighter and more friable soils, they have adapted to different types.

Getting Along: Co-existing and allowing pocket gophers to perform their job for the environment is the best course of action, however, there are non-lethal means of protecting your plants. The two most effective methods are:

  1. Barriers: Constructing a barrier to keep pocket gophers from tunneling into an area can be labor-intensive; however, this approach is recommended for small areas and areas containing valuable plants. Wire baskets can be used to protect the roots of individual trees and shrubs.
  2. Flooding: Pocket gophers can easily withstand normal garden or home landscape irrigation, but flooding can sometimes be used to force them from their burrows. The entire tunnel system will need to be quickly and completely flooded to evict its tenants. Five-gallon buckets of water poured in the hole will flood the area more quickly than a running hose.

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