The most commonly overlooked reality of gophers is that they multiply rapidly. Getting rid of gophers can become an urgent priority for homeowners who ignore one cute little gopher until it and its mate have 60, 90, or even more than 100 offspring.
Gophers are burrowing rodents that can destroy flower beds and shrubs. They can gnaw through irrigation pipes and cable television, Internet, telephone, and even electrical wires. They can do thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in damage—and trying to eliminate them wrong way can sometimes cost even more.
Note: We have described various methods for getting rid of gophers in this article and to help you navigate the page easily we have provided a Table of Contents below. Click on any of the headings to be taken straight there.
Table of Contents
- Locating the Gopher Tunnel Site
- Setting Your Traps
- Checking Your Traps and Removing Dead Animals
- Trapping on a Larger Scale
A Natural Digging Machine
Gophers are born for digging. More technically known as pocket gophers, these tunnel-digging rodents are recognized by the fur-lined pouches on these sides of their cheeks. These are reversible food purses that they can turn inside out that the gophers use to carry food and nesting materials.
The gopher’s anatomy is ideal for a tunnelling lifestyle. Gophers have powerful legs in their forelegs and large claws on their front paws. They have short, fine fur that does not cake with mud when they dig through soft, moist earth. They have sensitive facial whiskers and tail hairs that help them navigate through their tunnels whether moving forward or backward, and they have lips that they can close behind their four incisor teeth and keep dirt out of their mouths when they are digging. Gophers are well-adapted to the low-oxygen, high-carbon dioxide atmosphere that accumulates in their tunnels, needing less oxygen in the air they breathe than above-ground animals.
Unlike some other burrowing animals that are completely blind, gophers have a limited range of vision. They have excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell. Strict vegetarians, gophers feed on the tender roots and stems of plants hanging down from the roof of their burrows.
Know Your Gopher
There are over 30 species of gophers in North America, Mexico, and Central America. Most of the time damage to landscapes is done by just two, Botta’s pocket gopher, a gopher that is most commonly found in California, and the Plains gopher, a gopher that lives east of California throughout the United States and a small part of Canada. Botta’s pocket gopher can dig in almost any kind of soil and tolerates dry weather. Plains gophers prefer crumbly soil that is rich in humus and seek out well-watered landscapes.
Usually identifying gophers is not a major concern for homeowners. In a few areas of the western United States, however, certain species of gophers are under consideration for federal regulation as protected species. If you live in western Washington state or Colorado, check with your local wildlife office before you trap or kill any gopher, to avoid substantial fines if you are caught.
Is It a Gopher or a Mole?
Both gophers and moles do damage to shrubs and bedding plants by killing their roots. Both gophers and moles can be trapped for relatively easy pest control, but knowing whether your pest is a gopher or a mole is critical for choosing the right trap. A trap that is large enough to catch a gopher may be ignored by mole, and a trap that is small enough to catch a mole can be evaded by a gopher.
The best proof that the tunnels in your lawn and the dead or dying shrubs and bedding plants are caused by gophers is mounds of fresh soil. Gophers dig extensive tunnels in which they dine on the roots and stems of above-ground plants. Unlike moles, however, they dig side tunnels from their main tunnel to empty it of dirt.
Moles kick out dirt in a circular, volcano-like pattern. Gophers pile up dirt in a crescent or half-moon pattern. Moles leave the openings to their tunnels open except for an easily removed ball of dirt in the middle of entrance. Gophers fill in the side tunnels behind them.
Usually the gopher makes a compact ball of dirt that it leaves on one side of the entrance to the side tunnel. This ball of dirt will be on the side of the tunnel pointing to the main tunnel. Then the gopher fills in the 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) of the side tunnel behind itself, packing dirt tight, to keep predatory animals out of its tunnels.
Gophers are industrious tunnel builders. Most gopher tunnels are 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 inches (6 to 9 cm) in diameter at a depth of 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm). This is below the root zone of newly planted seedlings but in the prime root zone of well-established annual plants. It is also in the prime growth zone of recently planted shrubs and roses.
Sometimes a gopher will feed on plants on the surface, but only within about a one-foot (30 cm) radius of its open side tunnel. The ground may be stripped bare of vegetation within this small radius.
In areas with deep winter snows, they will surface near trees and strip them of bark underneath the snow. The gopher will insulate its tunnel from melting snow by packing hard dirt around the snow-covered but above-ground tunnel. When the snow melts, a structure resembling a pipe may lead you to the main tunnel.
How Deep Do Gophers Dig?
A gopher’s den may be dug as deep as 6 feet (2 meters) below the surface, connected to as many as several dozen escape tunnels, each with a side tunnel for quick exit in the event of flooding rains or smoke bombs lit by irate homeowners. For all this effort, adult gophers typically live alone, except when mothers are raising their babies.
Just How Destructive Are Gophers?
A single gopher can build hundreds of feet (well over 100 meters) of tunnels over 200 to 2500 square feet (20 to 200 square meters) area. Weeks or months of feeding result in the creation of a dead zone above the gopher’s feeding ground as a gopher will eat the roots of every plant in its feeding territory.
While there are recorded instances of gophers digging as much as 300 feet (100 meters) of tunnels in a single day, most of the time gophers only dig about 15 feet (5 meters) per day, with fresh mounds every 4 to 5 feet (about every 1.5 meters). Gophers dig all year round in moist soils, but are most active during the local rainy season in non-irrigated soils.
Pocket gophers feed on garden crops, especially carrots, parsnips, beets, and potatoes. They eat the roots of vines, shrubs, trees, and flowering plants. They sometimes gnaw through PVC water lines or septic lines, and into sprinkler systems. The irrigation water you provide your plants may be diverted into gopher holes and even find its way to the foundation or basement of your house, and gopher mounds can interfere with mowing equipment. Gophers are particularly destructive on golf courses.
Homeowners who ignore gopher problems are usually sorry. A pair of gophers can become dozens of gophers from one summer to the next, so most people find trapping and killing gophers the best choice for their first line of defence.
Buying the Right Trap
Gophers are killed with traps that snap upward and catch the gopher by its neck, killing it in less than a second with a minimum of pain. It is important to buy traps that are specifically designed for trapping gophers. Rat traps are too small and traps that could capture raccoons are so large that the gopher will not be caught.
Easier-to-use traps are slightly more expensive than the harder-to-use traps, but all sell for $20 or less. The less expensive trap is a bit more temperamental to set (you may need a helper the first time you set the trap to make sure you don’t trap your finger), but when you are setting dozens of traps, learning to operate it can result in substantial cost savings. The more expensive traps are easier to set and a good buy if you are controlling gophers over a smaller area. The good news is that it doesn’t take long to learn how to set gopher traps.
Both traps have to be bought and set out in pairs into the gopher tunnel. You will be setting these traps in the gopher’s main burrow, and you will need two traps to be sure of catching the animal no matter which direction it is travelling through the tunnel.
There is also a covered choker-style box trap that can used by itself at the junction of the gopher’s main tunnel and a side tunnel. It’s a little more expensive but it may be just what you need if you are just trying to do away with a single gopher. Box traps also require less digging to set and work in smaller tunnels.
Always be sure to handle gopher traps with work gloves (not latex gloves). Cloth gloves will keep your scent off the trap. This is especially important if you tend to have sweaty palms. Before you can set your trap, however, you have to locate the gopher’s burrow.
Locating the Gopher Tunnel Site
Successful trapping or baiting depends on accurately locating the gopher’s main burrow. Locating the burrow requires the use of a gopher probe. You will get best results from a steel probe with crossbar handle that is long enough for you to handle comfortably. You will also need a straight-edged shovel and traps handy immediately after this process.
The first step in locating the gopher’s main burrow, where you will set the trap, is to find a gopher hole. Remember, a gopher hole does not look like a tiny volcano. Gopher holes are surrounded by a semicircle or heart shape of dirt. They are completely filled in with a plug of dirt to one side. That plug of dirt will point you to the gopher’s main tunnel where you will place the trap. Fresh dirt is an indication of recent gopher activity. You will always want to place your trap where the gopher has been recently active.
Sink the probe into the ground about 3 inches (8 cm) way from the gopher hole. You should feel resistance as the probe sinks into the side tunnel the gopher packed with fill dirt. The side tunnel is harder ground than surrounding ground. Keep moving out from the gopher tunnel in a straight line until you feel the probe sink into a 2 to 3 inch (5 to 8 cm) hole. This is likely to be the gopher’s main tunnel.
Setting Your Traps
To reach the gopher’s tunnel to place the trap, use your straight-edged shovel to remove about 1 foot (30 cm) of the tunnel’s roof. It is important to use a straight-edged shovel to avoid filling in the sides of the tunnel as you work. Carefully remove any dirt that may have fallen into the tunnel from your excavation.
Gopher traps are not set in the same way as mouse or rat traps. If you are using a two-pronged pincher trap the gopher triggers it when it pushes against a flat, vertical pan, you will need to make sure you set the trigger underneath the trap, rather than over the trap like a mouse or rat trap. Press the tines of the trap apart using the thumbs of both hands. Then hook the trigger underneath the tines. This keeps the trap open until the gopher steps on the treadle, the flat square pan in the middle of the trap.
Since the trap only goes off when the gopher steps on the treadle from the side of the trap that does not have the tines, two traps are needed for the same location. Place one set trap at one end of your excavation and other trap at the other end of the opening. Make sure the tines of the traps are facing each other. Both pans should point to the inside of the tunnel.
It’s not really necessary to bait the trap, although you may be slightly more likely to catch a gopher if you put alfalfa pellets, carrots, or even cat food on the ground between the treadle and the tines. Be careful not to activate the trap over your fingers as you place the bait.
Next, you will need to attach a wire to the trap to a stake or flag. This way if the gopher is trapped but not killed, it cannot pull your trap back into its tunnel.
Then you will need to make sure the gopher pauses long enough to get caught in your trap. Using a garden trowel or your gloved hands, scoop some dirt in front of the trap (on the excavation side of the trap). This ensures that the gopher will have to pause as it passes over the trap. Do this for both traps.
Make sure there is about 3 inches (8 cm) of clearance over the trap so it will snap over the gopher’s neck. If the tunnel is not 3 inches high, clear out some additional space over the trap before placing it.
When you have set and covered the traps, making sure to connect them to a flag or stake so you can find them later, then it is time to cover the area you excavated. It’s not absolutely essential to cover your excavation site if you have set snap traps as long as it does not rain. If a tiny amount of light peaks through to the trap, the gopher will stop to fill in the trap and get caught in the process. If you are using a box trap, however, you must cover the excavation with lumber, canvas, sod, plywood, landscape cloth, or cardboard, because the gopher will fill in the box with dirt to block out light before it gets caught in the trap.
If you are using a box trap, you don’t need to stake the trap to keep the gopher from carrying it away. But you do need to then cover the excavation area to exclude light. Box traps are best placed in the main tunnel at side tunnels. Continue placing traps everywhere you see indications of recent gopher activity.
Checking Your Traps and Removing Dead Animals
Check your traps every 1 to 2 days, removing them and re-setting them elsewhere if you don’t have a gopher. Some people throw away both the gopher and the trap, wrapping them in plastic and putting them in the trash. If you do this, secure the lid to the garbage can securely so raccoons do not get into the garbage to eat the gopher. Otherwise, you can simply remove the gopher from the trap, taking care not to get your fingers caught in the tines, and reuse it after rinsing it with hot water. Be sure to wear cloth work gloves when you are removing dead gophers from their traps. Should you find a live gopher in your trap, put it out of misery with a quick blow to its head with your shovel, and then dispose of the carcass.
In some states it is legal to kill gophers with kill traps, but it is necessary to get a permit from the fish and wildlife commission first. In the United States, check with the local fish and wildlife office before using a kill trap. In Canada, inquire at the local office of the provincial natural resources office.
Trapping on a Larger Scale
When gophers invade newly planted orchards or alfalfa fields, it may not be practical to use traps. Most states permit the use of toxic baits when gophers invade agricultural land. You will not be able to buy the bait without appropriate permits, but you can get all the information you need for acquiring these permits from the feed and seed or agricultural supply store that sells the bait.
The best bait to use for killing gophers is alfalfa-based poison pellets laced with strychnine. The alfalfa is the gopher’s favorite food, and the lethal poison kills gophers in a single dose.
You prepare the gopher’s tunnel in the same way used for putting out traps. For small infestations, a garden trowel or spoon reserved for this purpose is then used to dig a small hole down to the main tunnel, transferring the poisoned bait to the tunnel. For large infestations, apply poison bait with an applicator provided by the vendor who sells you the poison.
To tell whether the bait is working, stomp down any fresh gopher mounds. If no new mounds appear in 1 to 2 days, you can assume the gopher has been killed. If there are new mounds, 1 to 2 days after you put out the poison bait, then reapplication is necessary.
Poison bait does not have to be environmentally destructive. Strychnine breaks down in the soil after 30 to 60 days, as does zinc phosphide, which is labelled and licensed for killing gophers in some states.
Nine Methods for Getting Rid of Gophers Naturally
Natural gopher removal simply “encourages” gophers to dig somewhere else. Humane, natural gopher control methods really do work, but they take time and skill. Here is a step-by-step guide to help you eradicate them beginning with planning your landscape.
1. Choose plants that gophers don’t like to eat.
When planning your garden, use plants that gophers don’t like to eat. Plant them around the perimeter of your lawn and around the edges of your garden beds. Or choose plants that gophers do like to eat that cause them to “chill out.”
• California poppies in particular and other kinds of poppies in general contain sedative opiates that calm both people and gophers. Gophers will eat the roots of the poppies, but they will go back into their burrows to take a nap after they do. California poppies planted around rhododendrons, azaleas, roses, and ornamental shrubs help protect the larger plants.
• Foxglove (digitalis) gives both people and gophers heart palpitations. Like California poppy roots, foxglove roots will send the gopher scurrying back into its burrow to stretch out and get its blood pressure under control.
• Eucalyptus roots and eucalyptus leaf matter discourage entry of gophers into your landscape. The problem with eucalyptus trees, as most Californians know, is that they are highly flammable and their sap can ruin the finish on cars.
• Oleanders are toxic to gophers and people. Both oleander roots and oleander leaves will discourage entry by gophers.
• Botta’s pocket gopher, the kind of gopher most often found in Southern California, is repelled by clustered tarweed (Deinandra fasciculata), a small native daisy found in Southern California and Contra Costa county in the San Francisco Bay Area.
• Garlic is especially unpleasant for gophers, although they will eat it if there is nothing else. Garlic also gets shot of many above-ground insects that can attack plants.
2. Use “psy ops” (psychological operations) purge gophers.
Gophers will go where they don’t have to spend energy defending themselves against predators. Fear-provoking sounds will cause gophers to leave your yard, but it is necessary to use a variety of fear-provoking stimuli at the same time and to avoid using the same method for more than two weeks at a time.
Among the noise-makers that gophers will avoid include pinwheels that turn in the wind or a kinetic wind sculpture. Or you might want to use a vibrating stake or a sonic deterrent. None of these methods, however, is effective for more than about two weeks at a time. You will need to take them indoors and wait another two months or so before using them again.
If you want to use a more effective permanent “psy ops” weapon on your gophers, enlist the help of gopher predators.
Dogs, cats, hawks, owls, wolves, coyotes, and foxes all kill gophers. Chances are that you do not want to invite wolves, coyotes, and foxes on your property, and you should not put up nesting boxes for hawks and owls if you have kittens or puppies on your premises. Allowing your dog or cat to patrol the lawn in the early morning or late afternoon, however, and not getting in a big hurry to pick up poop, may steer gophers away from your lawn and garden.
3. Drive away gophers with odors they do not like.
Gophers are driven away by the smells of cigarette butts, bleach, household ammonia, chicken manure, doggy doo, mothballs, and rotten fish. People are driven away by these odors, too. Placing these materials at gopher holes may force the gopher to dig elsewhere and may keep a gopher from digging into a flower bed, but most homeowners do not use them on account of aesthetic or sanitation concerns. Products like moth balls work best underneath decks, where they also discourage skunks and raccoons. Shake Away fox urine granules may work up to about a week until the gophers conclude you don’t really have a fox in your yard.
4. Give gopher’s tummy trouble with castor oil.
For over one hundred years, Fletcher’s Castoria was in nearly every medicine in the United States. This castor oil compound induced bowel movement that was believed to cure an astonishing variety of ills. It was the “colon cleanser” of its day.
Castor oil has fallen out of favor for treating humans, but it is still used to chase away rodents. Mix 8 ounces (240 ml) of castor oil with equal amount of dish detergent. Then add another 8 ounces (240 ml) water. Both the detergent and the water are necessary to make the castor oil “spreadable.” Now add 1 cup (240 ml) of the mixture to 1 gallon (about 4 liters) of water in a bucket. Pour the castor oil down gopher holes and around plants. Most gophers will avoid contact with castor oil, but those that do not will at least leave your plants alone for a day or so.
Castor oil is “medicinal,” but castor beans are poisonous to both animals and people. Always use the oil, not the bean. Castor oil is available in bulk, 32-ounces will provide enough oil for four gallons of gopher repellent.
5. Protect the root systems of prized plants with mesh wire.
Gopher tunnels are usually about 2 inches (5 cm) wide. Wire that has a mesh of 1 inch (2.5 cm) or smaller may frustrate gophers so they turn around before they burrow up to the roots of valuable shrubs and bedding plants.
The best time to use wire mesh to protect plants is when you are putting them out. Dig a hole a little less (about three inches/8 cm less) than two feet (60 cm) deep and two feet (60 cm) for your new plant. Cut out a 3 or 4 foot (90 to 120 cm) strip of mesh wire and put it around the edge of the hole. Then tie the two ends together all the way from ground level to the bottom of the hole. Backfill the hole over the mesh as needed to set the plant at its proper depth. Be sure to leave at least 3 inches/8 cm of the mesh above the ground. Check the mesh periodically to make sure mowers or foot traffic have not pressed the mesh to the ground, allowing gophers to walk over it and dig directly at the base of the plant. During the dormant season (usually winter) the plant has become established, usually after 1 to 3 years, then dig out the protective mesh to allow the plant’s roots to grow normally.
6. Trap and release gophers.
It is also possible—although difficult—to trap and release gophers. A cage trap is placed in the gopher’s main tunnel through the same method as a lethal snap trap. The trap closes behind any gopher entering it to eat the bait, but the trap and the gopher can be transported to another location for human release, assuming your local laws allow the release of gophers. Many Canadian jurisdictions require homeowners to euthanize gophers caught in any kind of trap rather than releasing them on crown property or someone else’s private property.
It is very important to use the right size of trap to catch gophers. Never place a trap in a gopher burrow that is more than 5 inches (13 cm) high. Larger traps may capture live skunks, which are much more difficult to relocate.
7. Flood your gophers out.
A simple way to flush out adult gophers is to flood their tunnels. The rising water causes gophers to leave their burrows, and enables you to locate active gopher holes that where you can put out castor oil or dig for traps. This same rising water, however, may drive out snakes, raccoons, and skunks that have been borrowing the gopher’s habitat. Be aware, if you choose not to kill gophers, that the water may drown babies, which may be born at any time of year.
8. Smoke your gophers out.
A smoke bomb will also drive out adult gophers, also allowing you to identify active holes as the adults emerge. Smoke usually irritates gophers but does not kill them. Poison fumigants can kill gophers in their dens, but usually a special license is required to use them. Since any kind of fumigant that can kill gophers can also kill people, do not use poisons unless you are trained and licensed.
9. Live and let live.
Some homeowners decide that everything about gophers is not bad. They aerate the soil. They are an important food source for barn owls and hawks. And they are fun to watch when they are not destroying the landscape.
Many homeowners opt to liberate flower and vegetable beds but don’t exclude them from the lawn. When the landscaping objective is a rustic look, gopher tunnels usually don’t detract from the landscape, and the lawn becomes a haven for healthy wildlife.