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Controlling gophers requires changing garden techniques

Our wet fall seems to have brought out the gophers in full force. Their little mounds of dirt are everywhere.

I say pocket gophers because most experts say we don’t have moles this far east of the Cascades. Our soil is too hard for them to dig in during the dry summer and early fall. That said, if someone thinks they have a mole, please take a picture and tell us where you caught the offender. Gophers are gray brown and have two big yellow front teeth and build fan shaped mounds.

In Washington, the best method for catching gophers was ruled illegal with the passage of Initiative 713 in 2000. This initiative was intended to stop the irresponsible trapping of wildlife but inadvertently included moles and gophers. Ironically, it’s only illegal to use the traps; they can still be sold. Repeated efforts to change the law have failed.

Gophers are really only a problem when they get in the way of human activity. They are valuable soil miners that help mix soil horizons and restore soil tilth. Their tunnels provide homes for other small animals and they themselves are an important link in the food chain. They are solitary rodents that are active year-round, eating roots, bulbs and other fleshy plant material as they tunnel. Where there is a good snow pack, they will eat bark off trees and shrubs buried under the snow. Voles (field mice), shrews and ground squirrels can cause similar damage and holes.

When it comes to controlling them, forget the numerous home remedies like pickle juice, bleach, mothballs, razor blades, castor oil-based sprays or pellets, broken glass, red pepper concoctions, rose branches, vibrators, ultrasonic devices and gas bombs. They haven’t stood up to scientific scrutiny. What is likely happening is that the gophers have moved to new ground by their own choice, not your efforts. They are likely to come back.

Poison baits are not selective in what they kill and can harm pets and other valuable wildlife including hawks and owls. Gas cartridges, smoke bombs and flooding can be effective on newly started tunnel systems but are often ineffective on well-established systems. They can also be fire hazards during the dry season.

With control methods limited, the best options may be to adapt your gardening. Reduce the size of lawn areas or cut the grass high enough that the mounds aren’t as visible. Walk your property daily and smooth out mounds and uncover small plants that were buried or pushed aside. Develop small flower and bulb beds that are protected by an underground barrier of metal flashing or a hardware cloth basket. Bulbs can be planted in wire mesh baskets that will exclude the animals. Tree trunks can be surrounded by wire in the winter. Encourage predators especially hawks and owls by putting up nest boxes and perches and mowing problem areas so the birds can see any animals that come to the surface.

Pat Munts is a Master Gardener who has gardened the same acre in Spokane Valley for 30 years. Reach her by e-mail at pat@inland