June 21, 2014 in Washington Voices

Gophers appearing in your garden?

Pat Munts
 
Soil miners

Gophers are really only a problem when they get in the way of human activity.

• They mine the soil, mixing soil horizons and restoring soil tilth.

• Their tunnels provide homes for other small animals, and they themselves are an important link in the food chain.

• They eat 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.

• Because they are solitary, most of the damage you find is often the work of a single animal.

There is more than spring flowers popping up in our gardens this year. Pocket gophers are busy pushing up their familiar mounds of dirt all over the place. Gophers get their name from two pouches on their cheeks that they use to collect food and transport it to their nest.

According to wildlife experts, we don’t have moles here. East of the Cascades our soil is too hard for moles to dig in during the dry summer and fall. Gophers are gray brown and have two big yellow front teeth and build fan shaped mounds with the hole to one side.

In Washington, the best method for catching gophers was ruled illegal in 2000 by Initiative 713. This initiative was intended to stop the use of body gripping traps for wildlife trapping 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 active year round and eat 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. Because they are solitary, most of the damage you find is often the work of a single animal

When it comes to controlling them, forget the numerous home remedies like pickle juice, bleach, moth balls, 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. Rather than your home remedy driving them off, it is more likely they moved somewhere else on their own.

Don’t use poison baits. They 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 hawks and owls to hang around by putting up nest boxes and poles the birds can sit on and watch for a head to pop up.

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email