Killing gophers sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Well, gophers (specifically pocket gophers) damage landscapes and kill trees, garden vegetables, and flowers. They also eat the gardener’s best friend, earthworms.
I have learned there is no negotiating with these subterranean destroyers of all things I try to nurture in the soil. Many gardeners, homeowners, and landowners have had the frustrating experience of trying to get rid of gophers.
How to Get Rid of Pocket Gophers?
If you are against killing gophers, there are some nonlethal methods of deterring or repelling them that can be implemented. Barriers, repellants and sonic deterrents are worth considering.
Trapping gophers, poisoning gophers, or having animals like dogs or even snakes do your dirty work are all options. I do not like using poisons but they are an option so I will discuss them.
I believe the best method of getting rid of gophers is by using gopher traps. All of the traps I discuss here are very powerful and are designed to kill gophers very quickly and humanely. If you want to go straight to the information on trapping gophers, you can click here.
First, What You Should Know About Pocket Gophers
The gophers we are talking about are pocket gophers. In my case, the Northern Pocket Gopher, (Thomomys talpoides), which has the most extensive distribution of any pocket gopher in the U.S. There are 13 species of pocket gophers inhabiting the United States, and 34 species in North America.
The activities of a pocket gopher can be beneficial. Their burrowing increases water and air infiltration in the soil. They also mix organic material into the ground and bring the subsoil to the surface. Pocket gopher burrows are also used as homes by many other species of small mammals, snakes, and lizards. Pocket Gophers have litters in the spring and typically have three to four young. Densities of some species can be up to twenty per acre.
Gopher tunnels are anywhere from a few inches to four feet deep. Recently, while digging a hole for a gatepost, I found a gopher tunnel way down at thirty-six inches under the surface! Four to sixteen inches is more the norm though.
Pocket Gopher Damage
On the downside, anyone familiar with pocket gophers knows the damage they can cause. Gopher damage to orchards and gardens can be especially costly and frustrating.
According to the Colorado State University Extension Office, pocket gophers reduce the productive areas of alfalfa fields and native grasslands by twenty to fifty percent. Roots, vegetation, worms, and grubs make up the pocket gopher’s diet. Incredibly, gophers can pull plants from the surface down into their tunnels to dine on. Occasionally, they will emerge onto the surface for short periods of time and feed on tender green plants or girdle a small tree.
Pocket gophers are prolific excavators. A single gopher will bring over two tons of soil to the surface every year. Dirt from their excavations is pushed up to the surface in telltale mounds. Gopher mounds can make a landscape look like a moonscape in a few days.
Laws and Regulations Regarding Pocket Gophers
Pocket gophers are considered to be a nuisance species in my state, and in most, if not all other states. But be aware that some subspecies are Federally protected in certain parts of the county. Therefore, it is vital to check laws and regulations for your area before taking any eradication measures. You will find that in most places gophers can legally be controlled by almost any method.
It is important to keep in mind however, that when using traps, poisons or gas, nontarget species may be present. You definitely don’t want to get busted gassing any Federally protected Black-Footed Ferrets! In the state of California, you can go to prison for accidentally killing any of a dozen or so species of endangered rats.
Non-Lethal Pocket Gopher Control – Physical Barriers & Garlic & Onion Planting
One way of guarding against gopher damage is burying hardware cloth a couple of feet deep around anything you plant in the ground. The hardware cloth method can be very labor-intensive, especially for beds and trees that are already planted. This method might not be practical for anything larger than a couple of small trees or a raised bed or two.
It is a common theme among gardeners that gophers don’t like going near onions and garlic. Although, some people have reported gophers eating onions and garlic.
My neighbor planted some apple trees about three years ago and he grows walking onions all around them. So far he hasn’t had any trees killed by gophers. Gophers are active all winter though, so I’m not sure if I’d trust this method year-round.
Ultrasonic gopher repellers usually resemble a stake with a small solar panel on top. The devices emit an ultrasonic noise that people cannot hear and are supposed to drive gophers and other pests away. There are mixed reviews on the effectiveness of ultrasonics against gophers. Lots of reviewers say “Save your money, they don’t work.”
I use these devices (the plug-in type for indoors) in my house for mice. I do believe that they are very effective in this application. We have seen a drastic drop in mice and mice droppings since we began using them. I don’t know how well they would work on gophers underground. It’s possible that the ground would dampen whatever sonic effect is generated.
I won’t use ultrasonic outside the house. The main place I have gopher issues is in my orchard, where my bee-yard also happens to be. Bees, spiders, and beetles are reported to be affected by ultrasonic devices, so that’s not gonna work for me. Even if you are not a beekeeper, if you have fruit trees or a garden, you want bees and other pollinators around.
I can’t find any information on the effect of ultrasonic deterrents on worms, but it makes sense to me that if these devices really work, worms would also be run off by ultrasonic vibrations in the ground. I want worms in my orchard and garden, along with other beneficial insects like spiders, ladybugs and praying mantis.
Manufacturers of ultrasonic deterrents also advertise their effectiveness against snakes. I like having snakes around. A good size bull snake is one of the very best natural methods of killing gophers, not to mention mice, rats, and other pests. I’ll talk more about snakes later.
If you are interested in sonic gopher deterrents, these appear to be some of the best.
Suggested pocket gopher repellants include commercial varieties using castor bean or castor oil in pelletized form. The effectiveness of these repellants is questionable. I used a product made from castor oil one winter around my orchard trees. It didn’t stop at least one gopher from getting to the roots of one of my young apple trees. Your results may vary.
Live traps do not lend themselves well to trapping gophers. Primarily, because gophers live in small round-shaped tunnels under the ground. All of the live traps I’ve seen for small animals have been rectangular and way too large to fit in a gopher tunnel.
One live trap I’ve seen for gophers involved a five-gallon bucket with a piece of angled ductwork coming out of the top. The whole contraption has to be buried underground and then dug up to check the trap. With live traps, you would need to check the trap at least a few times a day. It’s not humane to let a gopher die slowly in a live trap from starvation.
Poisoning gophers is another option that can be effective. Poisons typically are grains or peanuts that contain strychnine or zinc phosphide. Poison can affect non-target species and even scavengers or predators that may dig up and eat poisoned animals, such as badgers.
The risk of a chicken getting into some poison spilled above ground or a dog digging up and eating a poisoned gopher makes this a weapon of last resort for me. I don’t like even storing anything this toxic on the homestead.
Products such as Sweeney’s Poison Peanuts use zinc phosphide. When the bait is eaten and it comes into contact with the stomach acid, the zinc phosphide turns into highly toxic phosphine gas, which is said to kill the gopher very quickly. There is no antidote to reverse phosphine gas poisoning in animals or humans.
The other common rodenticide is strychnine. I do not consider strychnine to be a humane method of killing anything. I will spare you the details, but I’ll suffice to say that strychnine has a notorious reputation as being a horribly agonizing way to leave this world. You can read more about strychnine here if you need more convincing.
You will hear of people using vehicle exhaust piped into gopher tunnels with a garden hose as a means of killing pocket gophers. Similar ideas are smoke or gas devices such as the “Giant Destroyer.” These products get mixed reviews.
The Giant Destroyer is basically a smoke bomb, containing sodium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal. It is activated by lighting a fuse. The idea is to asphyxiate the gophers in their tunnels. Reviews online range from “Great!” to “Waste of money!”
The Colorado State University Extension Office describes these smoke bomb devices as, “Not very successful.” Apparently, the smoke is either diffused into the surrounding soil or upon sensing the smoke; the gopher will quickly plug the tunnel where it is coming from. The manufacturer claims there is no residue left over from use, but advises you not to use them near vegetable gardens.
Fumitoxin / Aluminum Phosphide
A rodenticide called Fumitoxin, containing aluminum phosphide, is sometimes used by exterminators to kill gophers and other rodents. Fumitoxin is a commercial product in pellet form. Aluminum phosphide creates phosphine gas when subjected to water or soil moisture. Fumitoxin is extremely dangerous and should only be applied by a licensed exterminator.
In Amarillo Texas in 2017, four children were killed from phosphine gas after Fumitoxin was applied at a home to kill rodents.
In 2010, two young girls in Utah were also killed by phosphine gas after Fumitoxin pellets were placed into burrows near home to kill gophers. The gas somehow made it inside the home.
One effective method of getting rid of pocket gophers, if the cost can be justified, is the Rodent Blaster Hot Shot System. The Rodent Blaster injects a propane and oxygen gas mixture into the tunnels and burrows of the gopher, prairie dog, etc., and then ignites the gas and effectively destroys the tunnels and kills the animals. Gophers are killed instantly by the concussion of the blast.
If I had more land, a Rodent Blaster would be a must-have item. Those who use them swear by them.
Use a Gopher Dog
A dog (especially small Terrier breeds) can undoubtedly be a part of your gopher control plan. Rat Terriers and Jack Russell Terriers would be ideal because of their breeding and their natural hunting drive. However, because gophers spend most of their time in a network of tunnels, a dog will probably never get them all.
Using Snakes to Kill Gophers
A large bull snake, king snake or gopher snake on your property will put a dent in your gopher population. Snakes are also a very natural and non-toxic way to control gophers. I noticed a significant decrease in gopher activity last year at my place after releasing a large bull snake on my property. I rescued him from getting ran over on the county road and I gave him a new home and a job.
Make sure you know which snakes are not poisonous and have some snake-handling skills before you attempt to re-home them. Also, check local laws to see if this is permitted. Keep an old pillowcase in your vehicle to transport a good-sized constrictor to your property if you find one.
Flooding Gopher Holes
There are many Youtube videos about flooding gopher tunnels with a garden hose or even a five-gallon jug of water. I tried the garden hose method once or twice and unlike the videos online, I never saw any gophers shoot up out of the holes. I imagine that flooding can sometimes work, but because of their extensive tunnel systems, most gophers seem to escape.
The Most Effective Method – Traps
Traps are a very effective way of killing gophers quickly and humanely without the use of poisons on your property. Small wire traps, such as Victor or Maccabee wire traps, can be purchased for around five dollars apiece on Amazon or at your local hardware or feed store. They work similar to a mousetrap, but are designed to work in a small tunnel and are much stronger than a mousetrap.
These traps and most others are placed inside gopher tunnels. Instead of using bait, they are triggered when the gopher tries to push a plate or a shaped piece of wire out of his tunnel.
Other traps such as the Black Box by Victor and the Black Hole trap are favorites and will also do the job. The Black Hole uses a cable-like snare to catch the gopher. The Black Box operates similarly to the Black Hole but uses a hard wire.
These traps are powerful, causing the gopher to perish very quickly. You can expect to pay in the neighborhood of $15 to $20 per trap for box-type traps.
Cinch traps such as these made by Lasso also have a good reputation as gopher getters. The large end of the trap where the spring and setting mechanism doesn’t fit inside the tunnel, only the business end of the trap goes in the tunnel.
I just ordered a GopherHawk trap and can’t wait to try it out. I’ve read good things about this trap. I will post more information as soon as I’ve had a chance to try it out.
Two things impress me about the Gopherhawk. The first is that you don’t need to use a shovel to dig up a huge chunk of ground to set the trap. The Gopherhawk is inserted in a small hole after locating the tunnel with an included probe. The second reason I like the Gopherhawk is that only one trap is required to catch gophers going either way in the tunnel. With traditional tunnel traps, two traps have to be set to catch gophers traveling in either direction.
Where and How to Trap Gophers
Pocket gophers create the underground tunnels that they excavate by chewing and digging through the soil, roots and sometimes wires or sprinkler pipes. Gophers push the excavated dirt from their main tunnels (usually about a foot deep) to the surface through lateral tunnels. The accumulated dirt you see on the surface is called a mound.
The mound is commonly crescent or kidney-shaped, and sometimes a circular depression can be seen in the center of the crescent, which is called the “plug.” The plug is where the gopher plugged up the lateral tunnel leading to the surface.
Finding Gopher Tunnels
The lateral tunnel will usually be angled down to the main tunnel from the opening or plug. Sometimes the lateral tunnel will take off in an almost horizontal direction from the mound. In this case, the tunnel may only be a few inches beneath the surface. You will occasionally see a tunnel opening on the surface that is not plugged and may not even have a mound of dirt around it. I believe the Gophers use these openings as ventilation, to allow air into the tunnels.
When you find a fresh gopher mound, you can locate the main tunnel nearby by digging, or you can probe the ground with a metal rod. A piece of rebar can work, or I have an old 3/8″ grounding rod that does the job. When probing, you will know you found the tunnel when you hit the spot where there is no resistance for a few inches.
Setting Wire Traps
When you find the main tunnel, dig it out enough to place traps facing in each direction so that the gopher will encounter a trap no matter which side he approaches from.
Wire traps such as the Victor 0610, Maccabee, or Gophinator, can be carefully placed in the tunnel with minimal or no enlarging of the tunnel. Usually, all you will need to do is reach inside and scrape out any loose dirt that resulted from your digging.
Attach a wire or small chain a few feet in length to the trap. Connect the other end of the chain or wire to a stake of some sort. Add a piece of brightly colored landscaping ribbon to the stake to make it easy to find where you set your traps.
Setting Box Type Traps
You must do a little more excavation if you use a Black Hole of Victor Box trap. Box type traps, because of their larger size, will not fit inside a tunnel, as a wire trap will. You need to excavate enough soil so you can butt the trap up against the end of the tunnel. The spring mechanism on these traps is exposed on the top of the traps, but they can be buried in a little bit of loose light dirt. A bucket also works to cover the trap and keep light out.
Wire traps can sometimes miss, or not catch the gopher in an ideal manner. Black Box and Black Hole are more reliable in this way and kill instantly or within seconds.
Close the Tunnel or Leave it Open?
People have differing opinions on whether to close off the end of the tunnel after setting the trap or leave it open. One school of thought is that the gopher will be reluctant to approach if air or light is coming down the tunnel.
The opposing opinion is that air and light in the tunnel will motivate the gopher to come and investigate and make repairs. Each of these methods will result in success. I close off the tunnel, usually by placing a large clod of dirt over the entrance. I then cover the cracks around it with loose soil.
As effective as traps are, (somewhere in the range of 60%-80% in my experience) nothing works one hundred percent of the time. If you are going to catch a gopher, you will usually do so by the morning after you set your trap. Sometimes you will find the gopher has plugged the tunnel, burying your wire trap in the process. If a gopher does this, I switch trap types. If he does it again, he will likely keep on doing it. In this case, another method might be called for.
You might not win all the battles when trying to get rid of gophers, but with persistence, you can win the war!
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