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***some images and video not for the faint-hearted***

We have pocket gophers.  Lots of them.   We try very hard not to interfere with native plant and animal species on the property.  However, in the garden and orchard areas we occasionally find we need to address our pocket gopher population.  Burgeoning populations can quickly decimate rows of crops, kill small shrubs and trees, and do significant damage to underground irrigation systems.

Valley Pocket Gopher - the mortal enemy of young fruit trees

When we first moved here it was clear that in some parts of the property we had a healthy pocket gopher population. We knew that some degree of effective gopher control would need to be employed to protect our investment of newly planted fruit trees in the orchard.

Our goal was not to eliminate all gophers from the property.  That’s neither reasonable, nor desirable.  Although pocket gophers are damaging to crops, they do have benefits.  They bury organic matter in the soil, increasing soil fertility.  They aerate soils, preventing compaction, and increasing water penetration, thereby decreasing run-off.  Their burrow systems are often utilized by other species, including our resident Coast Range Newts, as valuable shelter from weather and predators.  Gophers also help to increase the rate of soil formation by bringing subsoil materials to the surface, where they are subjected to weathering.  A few gophers aren’t necessarily bad, we just want to prevent the population from getting out of control.

In addition to powerful jaws, pocket gophers have long sharp claws

Five species of pocket gophers are found in California.  The Botta’s, or Valley Pocket Gopher, Thomomys bottae, is the most widely distributed in this state, and the species we have here.  Various species of pocket gopher are found throughout the western two-thirds of the United States, and parts of the southeast.

Regardless as to species, they are all controlled similarly and there are numerous legal methods of gopher control.  Popular control methods have included baiting with toxic baits such as Strychnine-treated grain, or anticoagulant rodenticides, or hiring a certified professional to fumigate with aluminum phosphide.

We weren’t interested in using any toxic methods of control, not just to protect our own animals, but also the wild birds and animals here, and to eliminate any risks of residue run-off into the two creeks on the property.  We consider this property to be sensitive habitat for numerous native plant and animal species, and have no desire to risk their populations for the sake of controlling a few gophers.

Non-toxic methods of control include trapping, barrier-exclusion methods of control, such as lining garden beds with hardware cloth or gopher wire, wrapping root-balls of sensitive plants in gopher wire, and encouraging natural predators to assist us in keeping populations in check.  In the non-cultivated areas of the property we rely on natural predators to keep pocket gopher populations down.  Our resident hawks, owls, coyotes, and bobcats are all natural predators of gophers, as is this gopher snake.  But honestly, how many gophers can a gopher snake eat in a year?

The Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) can't eat enough gophers to control large populations

We caught this bobcat earlier this year catching a gopher, with a side of salad, near the chicken coop.

Unfortunately, the bobcats can’t reach the gophers running amok in our fenced orchard, and even if they could, they don’t consume enough of them, often enough, to significantly affect their populations.  That’s where trapping becomes our best option.

We’d tried Macabee traps previously, but we had very rare success using those traps.

Macabee Trap - 'Old Reliable'...wasn't. We had poor success with this time-consuming trapping method.

Our soils here are friable, and it’s difficult excavating down to a horizontal run to place pairs of traps, without collapsing the tunnels completely.  Macabee traps also aren’t very humane.  They impale the gopher, but they’re not instantly killed.  They bleed to death, slowly.

Cinch traps are easier to use than Macabee traps, and a more humane method of trapping

We had tried Cinch Traps, and had even less success with those.  They are more humane, as they instantly kill the gopher, breaking its neck.  What we didn’t realize was there is an art, and a science, to using Cinch Traps correctly, and successfully.  Fortunately for us, we have an excellent local resource available, Thomas Wittman.

Thomas owns and operates Gophers Limited, in Felton, California.  He teaches farmers, grounds keepers, and individual gardeners how to evaluate and control their own gopher populations.  Desperate to squash the gopher problem that was gnawing its way across our orchard slope, we spoke with Thomas about doing an on-site evaluation and personal training session to teach us what we were doing wrong, so we could effectively trap our gophers. Thomas however recommended that we begin with one of his ‘starter kits’, which included two traps, a hori-hori knife, and an in-depth instructional DVD.  If after watching the DVD we still weren’t successful at trapping gophers on the property, he’d be more than happy to set up a private consult.

Our starter kit included this instructional video

We purchased his ‘Cinch Method Starter Kit’, and watched the video.  We learned a lot more about gophers than we realized there was to know, and finally understood why our previous trapping attempts had been met with such limited success.  Thomas taught us how to think more like a gopher, how to read important patterns in soil disturbances, and most importantly where to place the Cinch Trap, and how to properly set the trap for greatest success.

The next morning, eager to deploy our new found knowledge against the gophers that had previously outwitted us, we set two traps.  Thomas demonstrates placing the Cinch Traps in this video excerpt.

We didn’t expect to be as successful as Thomas is in this video, as we hadn’t caught a gopher ourselves in months, but before lunch, we’d caught our first TWO pocket gophers in the orchard.  Thomas’ kit had already paid for itself as we now had finally caught the most problematic gophers threatening our new fruit trees.  As our gophers are killed without toxins, rather than bury them, we leave them at the soil surface.  There are plenty of predators and scavengers here, and by morning they’re always gone.

Our first catch of the day

Ever wonder why these little rodents are called pocket gophers?  I’d never really thought about it before.  Pocket gophers get their name from their extensive external cheek pouches.  Fur-lined pockets that extend all the way back toward their shoulders.  They can pack a lot of food into these pockets, and transport it through their burrows, leaving their teeth and claws free for digging.

Pocket gophers transport food in their extensive external cheek pockets

Turning out this gopher's pockets revealed an entire crimson clover seed head

We took a little video of our first two successful catches.  The video starts with a gopher underground tugging on the roots of some weeds (you can see the plant ‘twitching’).

We don’t usually recommend specific products on our blog, but if you have a seemingly endless supply of gophers, and are interested in non-toxic control of your resident gopher population, we highly recommend Thomas Wittman’s DVD.  It was a good investment for us, and we finally feel confident that we can keep our gophers under control.  If you reside in the San Francisco Bay Area, Thomas also does presentations throughout the year, in various locations.  See the Gophers Limited website for upcoming sessions.