The Q&A Archives: gopher control

Question: Have you any suggestions for gopher control? The little devils think my garden is their local delicatessen!

Answer: I wish there were an easy answer! To successfully control gophers, the sooner you detect their presence and take control measures, the better. Most people control gophers in lawns, gardens, or small orchards by trapping and/or by using poison baits.

Successful trapping or baiting depends on accurately locating the gopher's main burrow. To locate the burrow, you need to use a gopher probe. Probes are commercially available or can be constructed from a pipe and metal rod. An enlarged tip that is wider than the shaft of the probe is an important design feature that increases the ease of locating burrows. Probes made from dowels or sticks may work in soft soil, but are difficult to use in hard or dry soils.

First, locate areas of recent gopher activity based on fresh mounds with dark, moist soil. Fresh mounds that are visible aboveground are the plugged openings of lateral tunnels. The main burrow can be found by probing about 8 to 12 inches from the plug side of the mound; it is usually located 6 to 12 inches deep. When the probe penetrates the gopher's burrow, there will be a sudden, noticeable drop of about 2 inches. You may have to probe repeatedly to locate the gopher's main burrow, but your skill will improve with experience. Because lateral tunnels may not be revisited by the gopher, trapping and baiting in them is not as successful as in the main burrow.

Trapping is a safe and effective method to control pocket gophers. Several types and brands of gopher traps are available. The most commonly used is a two-pronged pincher trap, such as the Macabee trap, which is triggered when the gopher pushes against a flat vertical pan. Another popular trap is the choker-style box trap.

To set traps, locate the main tunnel with a probe, as previously described. Use a shovel or garden trowel to open the tunnel wide enough to set traps in pairs facing opposite directions. By placing traps with their openings facing opposite directions, a gopher coming from either end of the burrow can be intercepted. The box trap is easier to use if you've never set gopher traps before, but setting it requires more excavation than if you are using the Macabee trap, an important consideration in lawns and some gardens. Box traps are especially useful when the diameter of the gopher's main burrow is small (less than 3 inches) because to use the Macabee-type wire traps, small burrows must be enlarged to accommodate them.

It is not necessary to bait a gopher trap, although some claim baiting gives better results. Lettuce, carrots, apples, or alfalfa greens can be used as bait. Place the bait at the back of a box trap behind the wire trigger or behind the flat pan of a Macabee-type trap. Wire your traps to stakes so they can be easily retrieved from the burrow. After setting the traps, exclude light from the burrow by covering the opening with dirt clods, sod, cardboard, or some other material. Fine soil can be sifted around the edges to ensure a light-tight seal. If too much light enters, the gopher may plug the burrow with soil, filling the traps and making them ineffective. Check traps often and reset them when necessary. If a gopher is not caught within 3 days, reset the traps in a different location.

The key to an effective toxic baiting program is bait placement. Always place pocket gopher bait in the main underground tunnel, not the lateral tunnels. After locating the main gopher burrow with a probe, enlarge the opening by rotating the probe or inserting a larger rod or stick. Following label directions, place the bait carefully in the opening using a spoon or other suitable implement that is used only for that purpose, taking care not to spill any on the ground surface. A funnel is useful for preventing spillage.

Strychnine-treated grain bait is the most common type used for pocket gopher control. This bait generally contains 0.5% strychnine and is lethal with a single feeding. Baits containing anticoagulants are also available. When using anticoagulant baits, a large amount of bait (about 10 times the amount needed when using strychnine baits) is required so that it is available for multiple feedings. Although generally less effective than strychnine baits, anticoagulant baits are preferred for use in areas where children and pets may be present. When using either type of bait, be sure to follow all label directions and precautions.

After placing the bait in the main burrow, close the probe hole with sod, rocks, or some other material to exclude light and prevent dirt from falling on the bait. Several bait placements within a burrow system will increase success. Tamp down existing mounds so you can distinguish new activity. If new mounds appear for more than 2 days after strychnine baiting or 7 to 10 days after anticoagulant baits have been used, you will need to rebait or try trapping.

If a large area is infested with gophers, a hand-held bait applicator will speed treatment. Bait applicators are a combination probe and bait reservoir. Once a burrow is located using the probe, a trigger releases a measured amount of bait into the tunnel. Generally, strychnine bait is used with such a bait applicator because the applicator dispenses only a small quantity of bait at a time.

Underground fencing might be justified for valuable ornamental shrubs or landscape trees. To protect existing plantings, bury hardware cloth or 3/4-inch mesh poultry wire 2 feet deep and extended at least 1 foot aboveground to deter gophers moving overland. This method is less than perfect, however, because gophers may burrow below the wire; also, the wire may restrict and damage root growth of trees. Small areas such as flower beds may be protected by complete underground screening of sides and bottoms. When constructing raised vegetable or flower beds, underlay the soil with wire to exclude gophers. Wire baskets to protect individual plants can be made at home or are commercially available and should be installed at the time of planting. If you use wire, use light-gauge wire for shrubs and trees that will need protection only while young. Leave enough room to allow for the roots to grow. Galvanized wire provides the longest lasting protection.

Six to 8 inches of coarse gravel 1 inch or more in diameter around underground sprinkler lines or utility cables may deter gophers.

Because no population will increase indefinitely, one alternative to a gopher problem is to do nothing, letting the population limit itself. Experience has shown, however, that by the time gopher populations level off naturally, much damage has already been done around homes and gardens.

Reduction of gopher food sources using either chemical or mechanical methods may decrease immigration of gophers. If feasible, remove weedy areas adjacent to yards and gardens to create a buffer strip of unsuitable habitat.

Hope this information helps!

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