Gopher broke! – A true story

So, I spend $5000 on a lawn and irrigation system and it is destroyed in two weeks. How? Pocket gophers and “The Great Gopher Hunter” my dog. Let me start by saying that I live next to a vacant lot and the scenario stated above happened a few years ago. I then just gave up on a nice yard and have been raking dirt ever since.

I recently sat in on a continuing education lecture for the technicians about gophers. We actually have a few different type of underground mammal pests in the area, and how the mounds are built and where the tunnels are located are how you identify if it is a Pocket Gopher, the most common and what I have in my yard, a vole, a ground squirrel, or a mole. Yes, those are four distinct possibilities.

Fresh Pocket Gopher mound
Fresh Pocket Gopher mound

The pocket gopher leaves mounds of dirt behind in a horseshoe or heart shape with a plugged hole off to one side. A vole has an open hole with “runways” leading from them. Moles are mainly around the coastal regions and their mounds are more volcano shaped and their tunnels are closer to the surface. Ground Squirrels are larger softball size holes with an open entrance and an open exit 10-15 feet away. Each type of varmint has its own best control solutions.

One gopher, many mounds
One gopher, many mounds

For this blogs purpose, we will focus on the Pocket gopher. In irrigated soil one gopher can create several mounds in a day all year round! They do not hibernate and can be active any time of day or night. They live in a burrow system that can cover an area of up to 2,000 square feet. They eat plants and roots and their feeding burrow is usually 6-12 inches below ground. The nest and food storage can be as deep as 6 feet. In addition to killing gardens, shrubs and lawns, these pests will gnaw through irrigation systems that are in their way to the surface.

Pocket gopher hole, no mound
Pocket gopher hole, no mound

One gopher can do hundreds to (in my case) thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. They usually live alone within their burrow system, except during breeding and rearing time when a mating pair will live together. In warmer areas like San Diego County, gophers can produce up to 3 litters a year, with each litter averaging 5-6 young who will reach sexual maturity in a year and live for about 3 years. There can be as high as 60 or more gophers per acre in an irrigated field.

Probing in tunnels next to mound.
Probing in tunnel next to mound.

To successfully control gophers, the sooner you detect their presence and take control measures the better. Most of the time our technicians will control gophers through baiting, or trapping if you have digging pets like mine. You will most likely see the technician probing around the mound looking for the best spot to place the bait or trap.

Probe in center of system
Probe in center of system

Baiting is more cost effective, less damaging to lawns and gardens and results can be seen in as little 3 days depending on how quickly the gopher eats it. Best results are usually in about 7-10 days so patience is needed. In situations like mine, trapping was the best option. The technician may dig to widen the holes in order to place the traps, and will have to return frequently to check them which is reflected in the cost.

What not to do: Do NOT use a hose to flood out the gophers. First, a regular garden hose will take a long time to fill up 2000 square feet of tunnels and is a waste of water in this drought. Second, flooding the tunnels may cause erosion and create deep holes creating more damage and an unsafe walking area. Third, if the tunnels lead to a neighboring yard and they have baited, it can flush the bait to the surface where pets may eat it and die.

Other methods to control gophers are exclusion, fumigation and gas explosions.  The latter 2 are illegal around homes, but can still be done by professionals with special use permits in large fields. I chose partial exclusion as a deterrent when I recently had snake mesh attached to my fence going 2 feet down to the harder soil and one foot above ground. You can screen in garden beds, or install wire baskets, which you can make at home or buy commercially, at the same time you are putting the plants into the ground. If you use wire, use one that is light gauge and only for shrubs and trees that will need protection 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 also can deter gophers. You can also create a root and vegetation free thick boarder around lawns and gardens.

When my gopher issues began, I decided to take an organic approach to let my dog take care of my gopher problem then re-sod. The issue with that was I had gopher holes and dog holes and the gophers came back. My proud hunter would leave dead bodies for me to find in unique places, and I lost the use of my yard and the irrigation system was destroyed. This time, trapping and some exclusion from professionals will keep my yard usable this year and save me money on landscape repairs.

Once control of the gophers have been maintained, it is important to keep an eye out for re-infestation. New gophers can move back in at any time and it is much easier to control one or two gophers than families.  Adding a gopher program to your regular ants and spider maintenance is easy and doesn’t cost as much as you may think. Talk to your technician about it today.

Blog by Rainy Broms
Pictures by Tony Perez 1/18/2016