Orchards, Gardens, and Gopher Traps
Getting rid of pocket gophers using gopher traps is something that became an essential skill for me after planting a small orchard on our homestead.
Apple trees suited to zone 4 grow well in our area, so I ordered half a dozen to start with from an online supplier. I started reading a book about organic orchard husbandry. I envisioned myself wandering through the morning sunshine in my orchard, biting into an organic apple freshly plucked from the tree.
The day soon came when my bare root trees arrived. I had my holes dug already; my orchard fence was up. I was preparing to plant my trees, giddy with excitement about finally getting them in the ground. That is until my neighbor came over and ruined it all.
“Planting some apple trees huh?”
“Yep!” I said. “These are just the start; I’m going to expand the orchard out that way and have a lot more trees, it’s gonna be great, I’ll have enough apples for the whole neighborhood!”
“Hmmpf,” said neighbor. “I planted a bunch of apple trees years ago on my place. They did great for three years. Then, the fourth year, when we were expecting fruit, the damn gophers killed ’em all. Every one of em. Trees just fell over. Damn gophers ate all the roots. Waste of time planting apple trees here. Damn gophers will just kill ’em.”
I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. My orchard dream was now in jeopardy. We had just moved onto our homestead and the first thing I wanted, even before a garden was to start a small orchard. Now I felt stupid for even thinking I could have apple trees.
Then I became resolute. A gopher would not beat me. I would find a way to prevail! “My foe, my enemy, is an animal.” (Bill Murray, Caddyshack, 1980.)
About the Pocket Gopher
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 and vegetation 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.
One gopher’s territory can span a 200-yard area. By looking at the damage, you might think there is an entire gopher colony inhabiting an area, which may be the home territory of only one gopher. As my neighbor pointed out, unchecked pocket gophers can be disastrous for your trees or gardens.
Laws and Regulations
Pocket gophers are considered to be a nuisance species in my state, and in most, if not all others states. (Yes, even California!) 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 most any method.
It is important to keep in mind however, that when using traps, poisons or gas, non target species may be present. You definitely don’t want to get busted gassing any Federally protected Black Footed Ferrets! In the aforementioned state of California, you can go to prison for killing any of a dozen or so species of endangered rats.
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 are trees already planted. This method might not be practical for anything larger than a couple of small trees or a raised bed or two.
Poisons / Gas
Poisoning is another option, but many homesteaders don’t want to put poison into their ground. 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 eat poisoned animals, such as badgers or weasels. 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 and the zinc phosphide turns into highly toxic phosphine gas. This gas causes mitochondria breakdown in the cells, first in the lungs, then other organs. Death is from respiratory failure. There is no antidote to reverse phosphine gas poisoning in animals or humans.
The other common rodenticide is strychnine. If you think phosphine gas sounds bad, strychnine is way worse. 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. However, if caught soon enough, strychnine poisoning can be treated.
I have heard of people using vehicle exhaust piped into burrows as a means of killing pocket gophers, but have never tried this method. Similar ideas are smoke or gas devices such as the “Giant Destroyer.” These type of devices get mixed reviews. The Giant Destroyer is basically a smoke bomb, containing sodium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal. It is activated by lighting a fuse. The idea is to asphyxiate the bitters in their burrow. Reviews of this product online range the gamut from “Great!” to “Waste of money!”
The Colorado State University Extension Office describes these 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.
Even though the effectiveness is questionable, the Gopher Destroyer is typically my, “Plan B.”
Suggested pocket gopher repellants include castor bean or castor oil and garlic. The effectiveness of these repellants is questionable. I used a product made from castor oil one winter around my orchard trees, but it didn’t stop at least one gopher from getting to the roots of one of my young apple trees. Your results may vary.
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. I would love to try one of these out someday. If I had more land, a Rodent Blaster would be a must-have item. Those who use them swear by them.
Another available option are Solar powered “Sonic” gopher deterrents, which do get some get good reviews. However, I have major concerns about using these in my orchard. I have read that these devices will negatively affect honeybees, which I keep in my orchard. Even if you don’t keep bees, these sonic devices will also affect spiders and beneficial insects. (Note that spiders are Arachnids, not insects. There’s your bug trivia for the day.) I have been unable to find any information about sonic devices and earthworms. It only seems logical to me that worms would also be driven away by ultrasonic sounds penetrating through the ground. And we like worms.
Advice from a Guru – Gopher Traps and Dogs
One day I ran into the local orchard Guru at the Tractor Supply store, and I picked his brain about gopher control. His method of getting rid of pocket gophers involved a two-pronged approach, dogs, and trapping.
He said that at his place, he trapped about seven or eight pocket gophers a year and his dog killed several as well. I know that one of my Anatolian Shepherds has killed a few pocket gophers who dared venture onto the surface. A dog (especially the small Terrier breeds) can undoubtedly be a part of your gopher control plan. However, the amount of time these elusive critters spend underground will limit the dog’s effectiveness. I have seen videos on the Internet of people flooding gopher holes with water and having a dog standing by to take over if the gopher emerges.
I have tried flooding gopher tunnels with a garden hose. Unlike the videos online, I never saw any gophers shoot up out of their holes.
The Most Effective Method – Traps
The Guru’s most effective method of getting rid of pocket gophers was trapping them. He explained that his favorite traps were the Victor or Maccabee wire traps, which can be purchased for around five bucks a piece on Amazon or at your local hardware or feed store. In my case, I found them at the Tractor Supply store where I just happened to be at the time I was enlightened. These traps are compact and fit into the tunnel and use very sharp claws to grab/impale the gopher.
Other traps such as the Black Box by Victor and the Black Hole trap are also favorites and will also do the job. The Black Hole uses a cable like a snare to catch the gopher. The Black Box operates similarly to the Black Hole but uses a hard wire around the body of the animal. 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 these.
I’ve had good success with traps and they are what I typically go to when gopher mound appears.
Pocket gophers create the underground tunnels that they excavate by chewing and digging through the soil, roots and sometimes wires or sprinkler pipes. Gopher’s 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.
The lateral tunnel will usually be angled down to the main tunnel. 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.
How and Where to Set a Trap
When you find a fresh gopher mound, you can locate the main tunnel 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.
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, Maccabbee, or Gophinator, can be 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.
To make sure an injured gopher doesn’t take off with your trap, 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.
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 like a wire trap. 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. 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. But in my experience, wire traps placed inside tunnels will still catch more gophers.
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. 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 with loose soil.
You Can’t Win Them All
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 the 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, smoke bombs, poison or a water hose might be called for.
You might not win all the battles in trying to rid your homestead of gophers, but with persistence, you can win the war!