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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, May 8, 2014

evelynevandersande_mugYou have probably never seen it, but you know its habitat. You might not even be totally sure what it looks like. Does it have a long tail or a short one? But you know for sure what its house looks like. When it digs a tunnel, it leaves at the entrance a specific little mound. If you own a golf course and you see many of these mounds, you will go into despair mode, and all-out war is declared, often involving very large amounts of poison.

What I am talking about? Gophers, of course. If you see those little mounds of freshly dug soil in your garden, the same sinking feeling might arise, but right away I want to beg you never to turn toward poison to get rid of the problem. If the gopher eats the poison, it might die, indeed, but so would the dog eating the dead gopher, or the owl coming by on his nightly hunt. Once poison enters the life cycle, it is difficult to stop the effect.

Also know that those poisons look like little blue granules that have been mistaken for candies by some children. So be extremely conscious of what you are doing.

Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda

Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda

If gophers are part of your garden, you will notice some strange things happening. Let’s say you went to the garden center, bought a new plant, made a nice, big hole and planted it. A few days later, you are admiring your plant when you see it agitated with a slight tremor. You come close by to check on it when you notice that instead of growing up, your plant has sunk into the ground. When you take hold of it, it does not offer any resistance, and you easily pull it out of the ground because all of the roots have been systematically sheared off.

We have a house in Ventura bordering a large natural area, and we have plenty of deer (lovely to see) and gophers (not our favorites).

My husband, in sheer despair one day, told me, “Please write an article about the gophers. There must be some reason they exist. If I understand them better, I might be able to accept that we have to share this garden with them.”

This was expressed with some urgency, so I decided to do my best to answer his question.

In spite of all my research, the only advantage of gophers is that their tunnels aerate the soil, helping in water dispersion when it rains – and that is it. They can also be prey for owls and cats, but those will need a lot of patience and good eyesight because, as stated, gophers are plenty, we see traces that they have been active, digging tunnels and eating roots, but we very seldom see them above ground.

Gopher damage. Photo: Ken Emmerson

Gopher damage. Photo: Ken Emmerson

In five years of being surrounded by evidence of their work, I have seen one only once, and only because it had been disturbed and was quickly running back to its tunnel. A round little body with strong shoulders (all of the heavy digging, I guess) was the general impression I got in those few seconds.

Their full and complete name is pocket gopher, and if you want to be technical, they are burrowing rodents from the family Geomyidae. They have nothing in common with ground squirrels – even if both are known for digging tunnels.

Let’s clarify right away some stories about those famous pockets. They are used only to collect food. The pocket gophers dig tunnels and they are larder hoarders. When they see something good to eat, food goes in the pocket and stays there until the gopher is back quietly in its burrow. The deep pouches are large, fur-lined, can be turned inside-out, and extend from the mouth all the way back to the shoulder, so you bet they can store large amounts of food in those long pockets.

Damaged rose root balls

Damaged rose root balls

Gophers do not live in large communities, and they try never to be above ground, as they know coming above ground is asking for disaster. Their main predators are weasels, snakes and hawks. Humans try but do not succeed very often. They also often carry parasites. They are aggressive if someone is threatening their burrow or tunnel, and more than one gardener and cat has been seriously bitten by their long, sharp teeth.

They love soil that is soft and easy to dig, so your prized vegetable garden or lawn is like heaven, and well-plowed farms and other agricultural areas are favored by this pest.

Gophers eat earthworms, grubs, plant roots, shrubs and any juicy vegetables. From personal experience, the only plant they seem to leave alone is lavender – but that might change any day.

Grumpy gophers prefer to live on their own, but they do need to reproduce, so the male and female might share some burrows if their territories are close to each other. But they still prefer to have their own independent tunnels. Nevertheless, they manage to reproduce a few times per year depending on the area (the more food available, the more breeding). Each litter has two to five young in general, but it also depends on the species. The babies are born blind and are taken care of by the mother. They are weaned at 40 days.

Photo: Leonardo Weiss

Photo: Leonardo Weiss

Yes, they do have a tail, in case you are still wondering, 1 or 2 inches long. It is hairy and they use it to feel around tunnels when they walk backward. They weigh about a half-pound, but some species weigh as much as 2.2 pounds. The male is usually larger than the female, and their lifespan is about five years. Their fur is brown, so they blend nicely with the soil. Good solid teeth are needed to chew through large and woody roots, and they use them all the time. As they are rodents, their teeth grow continuously so they are always ready for action.

If you are into sports, you might know Gainer the Gopher, the mascot of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League, and if you are into movies, you might remember the hilarious comedy “Caddyshack,” where the gopher wins every time.

They are here to stay and their population is doing very well, but they are considered a pest. If you have a close relationship with them and you have plants that survived their attack, I would appreciate you letting me and my poor husband know how you did it. Thank you in advance.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.


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  1. Eric says:

    I have used metal gopher traps with much success. You must use 2 at a time. Probe the ground around the dirt mound to find the tunnel. I use a short piece of rebar available at Home Depot or Lowes. Get a spade a spade and dig and expose the tunnel. Place the traps end to end in the tunnel so the gopher can be trapped no matter which way he/she travels in the tunnel. Cover the exposed tunnel. I use string attached to the rebar that I leave above ground and attached the other end of the string to the traps in case the gopher runs off inside the tunnel. The next day you will have a non-poisoned gopher funeral and say au revoir, gophair.

  2. Norberto Yolanda Montoya

  3. As someone who as tried everything, I recently read they don’t like Epsom salt. I put a few tablespoons down each fresh hole I discovered one morning and I haven’t had a new hole in almost 7 weeks.. I think it works ☺️

  4. I am a professional Gopher killer! I handle 2 local golf courses and many clients in SCV call me if you want these pest gone! All Pro Pest Control 661-298-2200

  5. Lately its been ground squirrels that have been awful, not gophers.

  6. Juicy fruit gum, chewed, dropped down the holes…it’s an old southern remedy, and it works.

  7. Liza Tyra Liza Tyra says:

    Hot peppers in the holes worked for us. The ticked off gopher even threw the pepper out of the hole and filled the hole in before he left

  8. i’ve used fox urine before, and it seemed to help. it comes as a powder. I’ve also used those noise emitting poles that you stick in the ground in various spots, and they were helping as well, but you have to remember to replace the batteries.

  9. Melissa says:

    Love your column, always interesting and informative.
    We live on 10 + acres in Leona Valley, this area is like heaven for gophers. Our alluvial soil is mostly decomposed granite, and the unused part of our land is covered in season with foxtails. The gophers like to eat the tiny seed in each of the tails, and use the other parts of the plant to line their nests.
    A few years back, in digging out a gopher hole, a tiny young gopher found himself above ground with no place to hide.
    My husband, wearing heavy gloves gently scooped him up and put him in a bucket of dirt. Immediately he started to dig out a burrow for himself.
    Just to see what would happen, Jerry put the gopher which he named Murray into a 50-gallon plastic drum with about a third of the drum filled with soil. Over the next two and a half years Murray happily lived in the drum, being hand fed foxtails, broken walnuts from our trees, even a baby carrot each day.
    Everyone that visited was proudly shown our ‘pet’ gopher, most had never seen one before, and Murray always popped up to see if a treat was forthcoming when the plank which served as a lid was lifted.
    Sadly the experiment ended when water leaked into the barrel during a rainstorm and went unnoticed. Apparently that caused the soil to cool too much, and the overnight snow made it so cold that poor Murray expired. We were both so sad, but glad that we had the opportunity to know up close and personal, one of God’s seldom seen creatures.

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