If you think you’ve got more gophers than usual, you’re probably right.
The gopher problem is particularly bad this year, particularly in central and east-central Alberta.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Ian Murray, a cattle rancher who lives near Acme. “It’s absolutely astounding.”
Last year, the gophers flourished near Murray’s canola fields and in a couple of other areas, but this year, he’s surrounded by the pesky varmints.
“We’re been told that with proper grass management, if you leave the grass a little longer, it’s not as bad because gophers like to see what they’re doing.” said Murray, who is also chair of the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta.
“I have noticed that. For the most part, the stronger pastures do seem to have less.
“(But) if you get into the alleyways or places where the grass is substantially thinner, it’s almost like a river. The ground just kind of moves in front of you. They’re all over the place.”
Murray isn’t alone in his gopher woes.
“We anticipated it being pretty bad when it started out as an early dry spring,” said Phil Merrill, provincial rat and pest specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. “We knew that if weather conditions were conducive for gophers, we’d have a problem this year.”
If the weather is harsh when gophers first emerge, they have a hard time surviving and finding food, but this February and March were warm and dry.
“This year, it was really nice,” said Merrill. “All the ones that came out of hibernation did well and had big litters. Then it was nice and fairly dry, especially in the central part of the province in early spring. That triggered really good ground squirrel growth.”
Gopher tunnelling and burrows not only wreak havoc on productive land (and present a tripping danger for humans and horses), but also gobble up a lot of pasture.
“They’re taking a pretty good chunk of the grass,” said Murray. “We still have a lot out there, but we’d have an awful lot more if there wasn’t this gopher population pressure. The holes are another thing, and then the influx of badgers that have moved in to feast on the gophers so we’re dealing with that, too.”
There aren’t a lot of control methods for gophers. Murray has resorted to shooting them, but is aware of the public perception of this action. Poison also works, but Murray has concerns about it going through the food chain in his operation.
“Poison does work well, but to have the maximum effect, you have to have the poison out before the young are born,” said Merrill. “If you kill 70 per cent of the adults, you’re really killing the population. But if you kill 70 per cent of the population now, most of those that die will be juveniles that (already) have a high mortality rate.”
It’s actually too late to do much this year, but producers can plan for next year.
“If we have a damp cold spring, then we don’t have a gopher problem,” said Merrill. “We can’t anticipate that. The potential is going to be high for ground squirrels next year, but if the weather conditions coincide, then we don’t have a problem.”
Knowing the animals’ weakness also helps with control.
Gophers don’t like long grass, and will often move to areas with short vegetation, where it is easier for them to see predators.
“If there is a field that is not doing very well on a hill, then they’ll move into that area out of the crop where it is growing well,” said Merrill.
If headlands don’t have a lot of growth in early spring, the gophers will move into this area.
“They start in the headlands and if the headlands have very little vegetation, then they take off,” said Merrill.
Heavy fall grazing of pastures makes for low early spring vegetation cover which can increase gopher survival from predation. However, leaving old vegetation growth in spring pastures is not always economically viable, and is not a factor in gopher viability during a wet cold spring.