Most homeowners love their yards. Unfortunately, so do moles, voles, rats, mice shrews, chipmunks, and those annoying gophers. The more work you do on your landscape the more inviting it seems to be for all kinds of digging and burrowing varmints. And your first task is to figure out what kind of critter is causing your lawn and garden critters.
Gophers leave distinctive tell-tale signs of their activity. Unlike other burrowing animals that leave volcano-like tailings of earth encircling the entrances to the burrows, gophers leave a crescent-shaped pile of dirt around part of the gopher hole and no dirt at all on the other side. They also leave a plug of packed dirt that serves as a “door” to the burrow that is put at one side of the tunnel.
And among all the burrowing animals, gophers are probably the busiest. Gophers dig a maze of tunnels that extend in all directions across your landscape. The maze of burrows undermines an area of 200 to 2000 square feet (about 20 to 200 square meters). As the gopher inside the burrow cuts, stores, and eats the taproots of grass, shrubs, and trees above, your carefully maintained landscape can become a barren dead zone where no plant life survives.
Gophers vs. Moles
If you are a new homeowner viewing first-time damage to your landscape, you may wonder whether you need to get control over gophers or moles. The smaller insect-eating moles are seldom seen, but if you do see a mole, you can recognize it by its dark fur, nearly closed eyes, tapered nose that may have about two dozen tentacle-like pink feelers, and tunnels just below the surface that leave a distinct ridge on the surface of the landscape.
The larger plant-eating gophers are sometimes seen for just a few seconds standing sentry duty over the holes or maybe dining on tree bark within a foot or so (about 30 cm) of the tunnel that can take them underground. They have small eyes that are clearly visible and rounded muzzles. Gophers have brown, yellow, or orange fur and they build mounds in a half-moon or, more rarely heart shaped. Gopher tunnels go deep into the ground and can cut into the tap roots of trees and shrubs, killing them and transforming a wooded landscape into a grassy landscape. Moles eat insects and grubs, but gophers eat plant roots.
The control methods that work for moles will not work for gophers. And different kinds of gophers require different kinds of treatment. There are about 30 species of gophers in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, all “true” gophers identified as pocket gophers.
The Pocket Gophers
Pocket gophers are distinguished by the fur-lined “pockets” over the cheeks on either side of the mouth in which they can carry food. The pockets can be turned inside out to dump out the food on the ground for easy consumption or storage in a safe place.
All pocket gophers are hoarders. Most of the food they gather and transport in their pockets gets stored in a deep location. When they are not mating, pocket gophers tend to be solitary and jealous of their food stores. When they are mating, gophers tend to share their tunnels and their food.
Some types of pocket gophers usually do not cause problems for homeowners, although they may present a major pest control issue for ranchers. Among the relatively innocuous species of pocket gophers are these:
• The yellow-faced pocket gopher lives in the Panhandle and Trans-Pecos of Texas and in eastern New Mexico in the United States. It is also found in the states of Coahuila and Chihuahua in northern Mexico. It has yellowish-brown fur and ridges down the middle of its incisor teeth. It prefers to live in short-grass prairies at a distance from human activity, outside towns. (There are no cities in the part of North America where it lives.)
• The smoky pocket gopher lives in dry grasslands in southern Mexico. It has grey fur.
• Giant pocket gophers are found in Central America and northern South America, primarily on grasslands used for ranching. A “giant” pocket gopher is still less than 12 inches (300 mm) long from its nose to the tip of its tail.
• The Llano pocket gopher lives in Central Texas west of the Pan-American Highway (Interstate 35), in areas that have reddish sandy soils rather than black clay soils.
• Merriam’s pocket gopher lives in the Valley of Mexico southwest of Mexico City. It is found at altitudes below 2000 meters (6000 feet).
A peculiarity in the naming system for gophers is that Eastern pocket gophers are found in the western United States (east of the Sierra Mountains in eastern California). Western pocket gophers are found in the eastern United States (but west of the Atlantic seaboard). Most commonly just two species of gophers cause problems for urban homeowners, Botta’s pocket gopher and the Plains pocket gopher.
Botta’s Pocket Gopher
Botta’s pocket gopher is the most common gopher in Southern California and in the Central Valley of California. It is sometimes found in alpine meadows in the Sierras. This gopher is unusual in that it can dig burrows in almost any kind of soil. It is a major problem for landscapers in Los Angeles and the cities along the central coast of California and for orchard owners and homeowners in interior California. It also favors irrigated farms in the Central Valley that produce its favorite food, alfalfa.
Plains Pocket Gopher
The Plains pocket gopher is an animal with fur that is brown rather than gold. It has a pointed nose, and is usually seen on all fours rather than standing on its hind legs. This is the pocket gopher that is most often found in southern Manitoba in Canada and in Minnesota, Iowa, parts of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, eastern Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois. It colonizes locations that have crumbly soil, and feeds almost exclusively on the roots of growing plants. Plains pocket gopher territory sometimes overlaps with yellow pocket gopher territory.
Plains pocket gophers often fight each other territory, but they share their burrows—which they extend at a rate of up to 65 feet (20 meters) every week—with a variety of insects including cave crickets and carrion beetles. Homeowners who find their houses mysteriously filled with cave crickets and dung-eating beetles usually can trace the source of the insect infestation to tunnels built by pocket gophers leading to their houses.
Like there are many types of gophers there are also many different types of gopher traps which you can read about by following the link.