Description of the Pest
Pocket gophers are stout-bodied rodents with short legs. Adults:
- 6 to 8 inches
- brown, gray, or yellowish
- large clawed front paws
- small ears and eyes
- a short, scantily haired tail
On each side of the mouth pocket gophers have external cheek pouches or "pockets" used extensively for carrying food.
Pocket gophers are rarely seen above ground. They live almost entirely underground spending most of their time in a tunnel system they construct 6 to 12 inches beneath the soil surface. A single burrow system can cover several hundred square feet and consists of main tunnels with lateral branches used for feeding or for pushing excavated soil to the surface. Because gophers are extremely territorial, you rarely find more than one gopher per burrow system, unless it is during the breeding season or females are tending their young.
The conspicuous, fan-shaped soil mounds over tunnel openings are the most obvious sign of a gopher infestation. These tunnel openings are almost always closed with a soil plug unless the gopher is actively excavating a tunnel.
Gophers feed primarily on the roots of herbaceous plants. They may also come aboveground to clip small plants within a few inches of the tunnel opening and pull vegetation into the burrow to eat.
Gophers breed throughout the year on irrigated land, with a peak in late winter or early spring. Females bear as many as three litters each year, although typically only one or two per year, each averaging five young. Once weaned, the young gophers travel to a favorable location to establish their own burrow system. Some take over previously vacated burrows. The buildup of gophers in crop fields is favored by extensive weed growth, including nutsedge, or the presence of many cover crops, especially perennial clovers and legumes.
Pocket gophers can be serious pests. They are active throughout the year and if uncontrolled and food is plentiful, can increase to 30 to 40 gophers per acre; in alfalfa they can reach even greater numbers. Pocket gopher damage tends to be greatest in alfalfa; they will consume all parts of the plant, but damage is often centered on the roots and crown of the plant. This damage has been found to cause serious stand decline leading to a shorter harvest life of many fields statewide. Their mounds can also cause extensive damage to hay equipment, and dirt from the mounds can lower hay quality.
Pocket gophers also feed on the roots of vegetable and berry plants. Plants with more fibrous root systems often suffer minimal damage; plants with large taproots are most susceptible. Gophers sometimes gnaw on plastic irrigation lines. These holes lead to uneven water distribution, with some areas receiving too much water, and other parts not receiving any. Fixing pocket gopher punctures of subsurface drip tape can be time-consuming and quite expensive. Tunnel systems often lead to a loss or diversion of irrigation water and may lead to severe erosion.
Persistent efforts can control pocket gophers and even eliminate them. Pocket gopher damage typically occurs belowground; therefore, it often goes undetected until individual plants or trees exhibit stress. By that time the tree or plant may be beyond saving. Gopher activity is readily detected, however; just look for fresh mounds of soil. Gophers make the greatest numbers of fresh mounds in the spring and fall, when the soil is amply moist.
Take action as soon as you see any sign of gopher activity. Common control methods include trapping, aluminum phosphide* fumigation, or hand-applied poison bait. Trapping and hand-baiting can be used at any time of year, but they are easier when the soil is moist and not dry and hard; aluminum phosphide* must be used when the soil is moist. Control of vegetative cover can reduce the attractiveness of fields to gophers by removing preferred food sources (e.g., nutsedge, clovers, and legumes). In addition, consider managing gophers in adjacent areas to reduce the potential for gopher reinvasion.
Gopher control is best done in late fall through late winter when mounding activity is high. Additionally, because numbers are usually lowest during early winter, management during this time of year can be more effective than after gophers have reproduced.
Snakes, owls, and hawks are usually not sufficient to effectively control gophers. These predators consume a number of gophers but usually not enough to keep populations at low enough numbers to eliminate the need for additional control measures.
If flood irrigation is possible, it can help control gophers; they are not aquatic. This type of irrigation often drives gopher activity to the edges of the field where they are more easily located to control, if not killed by flooding. Growers and their dogs can also actively seek out voles at this time to further reduce population size.
When taking a field out of production, deep tilling of soil will kill some gophers and destroy most or all burrow systems in a field. This can slow reinvasion rates and provides more time to get gopher populations under control.
Monitoring and Treatment Decisions
The best times to monitor for gopher activity are after irrigation and when mound building peaks in fall and spring.
- Monitor monthly.
- Pay close attention to field perimeters to determine whether gophers are invading the field from adjacent property.
- Monitor closely in weedy areas such as roadsides and in young orchards with extensive weed growth or ground cover. This type of vegetation is more likely to support gophers, and low-growing vegetation makes signs of burrowing activity more difficult to see.
- Look for darker-colored mounds, which indicate newly removed, moister soil.
- If you find mounds, trees or vines showing signs of stress, or both, look for girdling of roots or crowns at or below the soil.
The preferred control methods are baiting with multiple-dose anticoagulants, strychnine* or zinc phosphide*; trapping; and burrow fumigation. Neither chemical nor mechanical repellents have been found effective against pocket gophers. Remove vegetative cover and preferred food sources (e.g., clovers and legumes) to reduce the attractiveness of cover crops in orchards and vineyards to gophers. Often, a single approach is not sufficient to effectively control gophers. An integrated approach that uses more than one control option should provide greater control.
Strychnine*, zinc phosphide*, anticoagulants*, and aluminum phosphide* are currently restricted materials that require a permit from the county agricultural commissioner for purchase or use in agricultural fields. Be aware that restrictions for use of baits and fumigants around buildings may exist. However, restriction criteria of baits and fumigants often change, so it is best to consult your local agricultural commissioner before using any baits or fumigants to assure full compliance with current laws and regulations.
All treatment options require access to the main tunnel, located about 6 to 12 inches belowground. Finding the main tunnel takes practice, skill, and the use of a probing device. To find a main tunnel:
- Locate a fresh gopher mound. The key is to look for mounds that contain moist dirt.
- Start by finding the plug of the mound.
- Begin probing anywhere from 4 to 12 inches behind this plug.
- You will know you have found the tunnel when you feel a drop in the probe (i.e., less resistance) of a couple of inches. Tunnels typically run in only one or two directions. Occasionally you will have tunnels running in three or more directions.
While multi-dose anticoagulants (e.g., chlorophacinone* and diphacinone*) are available for gopher control, single-dose acute baits (e.g., strychnine* and zinc phosphide*) have historically been the most effective.
Gophers often back-fill old tunnels with loose soil and these backfilled tunnels can feel like open tunnels to inexperienced bait applicators. Applying bait in these backfilled tunnels will greatly limit the efficacy of this management approach; gophers will not find bait placed here.
Before initiating a baiting program, train all bait applicators to identify backfilled tunnel systems. An effective way to conduct this training is to:
- Have novice bait applicators probe for open (non-back-filled) tunnel systems.
- Once they have found a tunnel, they dig down into these tunnel systems to verify whether they are open or backfilled.
- Repeat until the bait applicator successfully identifies open tunnel systems with at least 90% accuracy.
Following these methods should result in consistently more efficacious control efforts when using baits and burrow fumigants.
Apply bait below ground. For small infestations or where the use of a mechanical burrow builder is not feasible, use a probe to find the main tunnel next to a fresh mound or between two fresh mounds. Once you find the main tunnel
- Enlarge the probe opening by rotating the probe back-and-forth
- Place a small amount of grain or pelletized bait in the burrow; a funnel can also be used to pour the bait into the tunnel.
- Place a dirt clod, stone, or another covering over the hole to keep out light and prevent soil from falling onto the bait.
Place bait in two or three places along the tunnel. This hand-application method can be used for single-dose or multiple-dose baits.
If gophers have infested a large area, reservoir-type hand probes designed to deposit single-dose baits are available. Bait application is faster with these devices because they eliminate the need to stop and place the bait by hand. Once you have located a tunnel using the probe, a trigger releases a measured amount of bait into the tunnel. It is important to check the probe periodically to make sure that is has not been clogged with soil. Generally, strychnine* or zinc phosphide* bait is used with such an applicator because it can dispense only a small quantity of bait at a time. Anticoagulant* baits are less toxic and require greater volumes of bait to be effective, thereby limiting the utility of bait probes for these baits.
A mechanical burrow builder can also be effective and economical for infestations that cover large areas. This device is pulled behind a tractor to construct artificial gopher tunnels into which it places bait. Artificial burrows either intercept some of the gopher's natural burrows, or the gopher will soon discover the artificial burrow and consume the bait. Prior to using this application device, it is important to know the average depth of active pocket gopher burrows before setting up the burrow builder. Use a probe to find burrows and a shovel to verify they are active (open). After starting the application, use a shovel to occasionally open a small section of the artificial burrow and inspect its depth and condition. It is also important that the compaction / drive wheels properly compact the soil over the burrow. Soil moisture is important, as tunnels created in dry soil will cave in, while tunnels created in wet soil may not form properly. Soil moisture must be intermediate to produce a well-formed, smooth, artificial burrow. Follow the manufacturer's manual to properly set the depth and calibration of bait application. All baits used in burrow builders are restricted-use materials. Use of a mechanical burrow builder may be feasible in situations such as unplanted borders or between widely spaced young trees when the terrain is relatively level and the soil is not too rocky or before planting a field. However, because the burrow builder creates an extensive network of burrows, only use it when gopher numbers are high as these new burrows will increase the speed with which gophers can invade new areas.
Traps are effective against small numbers of gophers but are labor intensive. As such, they can be relatively expensive to use over large acreage. However, trapping often results in greater control of gophers than baiting, so the cost may be offset by effectiveness. Use either pincher traps (most common) or box-type kill traps. The smaller size and lower cost of pincer traps typically makes them a more practical choice in a field setting. Pincher traps such as the Macabee, Cinch, or Gophinator have a vertical metal or wire pan which the gopher triggers by pushing against it. Studies have shown the Gophinator and Cinch traps to be more effective than other tested traps.
Pincher-type traps can be placed in the main tunnel of a gopher burrow system or in lateral tunnels. Setting traps in lateral tunnels is quicker and easier than trapping in the main tunnel. However, trapping in lateral tunnels may be less effective at certain times of the year (e.g., summer) and for more experienced gophers (e.g., adult males).
To place traps in the main tunnel find a fresh mound and probe as described in the Treatment Decisions section. When found, clear out the tunnel until the opening is just wide enough to insert the traps. Place traps in the main tunnel, one facing each direction the tunnel goes.
- Set traps and place them entirely into the tunnels. The number of traps required will depend on the number of tunnels present.
- Stake the traps by fastening wire, light cable, or twine to the trap and stake to prevent predators from carrying away traps with catches. Stakes also serve as markers to indicate trap location.
- You can cover up the trap-hole with sod, plywood, canvas, or some other material to keep light from entering the tunnel system. However, a recent study has shown that covering trap-holes has only a minor effect on capture success. When trapping a large area, leave trap-holes uncovered to save substantial time; however covering trap-holes may keep children and pets out of traps, if this is a concern.
- If there is no evidence that a gopher has visited the trap within 24 hours, move it to a new location.
To place traps in lateral tunnels, remove the plug from a fresh mound and place the trap entirely into the lateral tunnel. In many areas, the plugs in these lateral tunnels are quite extensive; in these situations, trapping laterals becomes counterproductive given the extensive period of time required to remove these plugs.
Most fumigants, such as gas cartridges, are not effective because gophers quickly seal off their tunnels when they detect the smoke or poison gases. However, aluminum phosphide* can be effective if applied underground into tunnels during a time of year when soil is moist enough to retain the toxic gas, typically in late winter to early spring, or year round in irrigated crops. In fact, burrow fumigation with aluminum phosphide* is typically the most consistently efficacious option for gopher control as long as sufficient soil moisture is present.
Application of aluminum phosphide* is similar to hand-baiting.
- Use a probe to locate the main tunnel.
- Once the tunnel has been found, wiggle the probe to enlarge the hole large enough to dispense the aluminum phosphide* tablets into the tunnel.
- Follow label instructions on the number of tablets to place into the tunnel.
- Cover the probe hole with a rock or dirt clod, being careful not to bury the tablets under loose dirt.
- Treat each tunnel system twice.
When using aluminum phosphide*, be sure to carefully follow all label directions and safety instructions.
As of 1 January 2012, the use of pressurized-exhaust machines that inject carbon monoxide into burrow systems has become a legal technique for controlling burrowing mammals in California. The California Department of Pesticide Regulation is now developing regulations for use of this method of control. This approach appears to be somewhat effective at controlling pocket gophers, although early studies have not shown it to be as effective as burrow fumigation with aluminum phosphide* or trapping.
Gas Explosive Device
The use of a gas explosive device that combines propane with oxygen has been used to kill gophers through a concussive force. This device has the added benefit of destroying part or all of the gopher's tunnel system, potentially slowing reinvasion rates. Exercise caution when using these devices because of the potential for unintended damage to property, injury to users and bystanders, potential for starting fires in dry environments, and destruction of turf. Additionally, these devices can be quite loud, making them unsuitable in residential areas. Studies on the efficacy of this device have not been positive. Alternative options such as burrow fumigation, trapping, and baiting appear to be more effective.
No scientific data has been reported to show that chemical repellents effectively keep gophers from inhabiting fields, orchards, or vineyards. A new repellent for use in subsurface drip tape has been developed that may offer some promise although it has yet to be sufficiently tested to verify efficacy.
Frightening gophers with sound or vibrations also does not appear to be effective.
* User must be a certified applicator or be under the supervision of someone who is. Some products also require a permit from the county agricultural commissioner for purchase or use