The days are getting longer, the sun feels warmer and the gophers are emerging from their sleepy winter slumber. After nearly eight months underground without feeding, one would think the gophers’ first priority would be food, but it’s perhaps no coincidence they emerge around Valentine’s Day.
“It’s difficult to poison the males when they first come out. They’re living on body fat and they’re fighting for territory until the females come out,” says Phil Merrill, an inspector with Alberta Agriculture.
The lovely ladies arrive above ground two weeks after the males, and their appetites are put on the back burner in favour of a little spring romance.
“As soon as they are bred and become pregnant they really have a high demand for food and that’s the time to bait,” Merrill says. “Mid-March until green-up is the time that we suggest you do the best by baiting. If you spend a weekend at the end of March doing your baiting, you will kill three times as many as if you do it in May.”
The young begin to emerge in May, which greatly increases the number of animals which need to be culled in order to dampen the population going forward.
Alberta’s gopher situation has been manageable over the past few years, thanks to wetter-than-average weather. Severe infestations tend to happen during periods of drought — when every blade of grass is precious. When the land is dry, there is less vegetation for predators to conceal themselves in and the gophers become an easier lunch. On dry or overgrazed land, gophers are able to spot predators much sooner, allowing more of them to retreat to the safety of their burrow to live another day.
Enemies — rain and snakes
“Lately, we’ve had very little in the extreme south. Cardston used to be a bad area in 2000-04, and then they had some real heavy spring rains and they died off and haven’t come back. And along the Milk River Ridge, all the way down to the end of the ridge into Warner, there’s very few there and it’s because in 2005 or 2006, we had eight inches of rain in June and it killed them off and they haven’t come back,” says Merrill, adding there aren’t too many east of Warner or in the Cypress Hills area. “Our population starts to get a little bit higher out towards Empress and Oyen; they’re fairly thick there. But again, the last two years, it’s been fairly moist there and the numbers are down. Anything along the rivers, there’s very few gophers because of the snakes.”
Using poison is a last resort, and there are other methods of control with less of an impact on the ecosystem.
“In a normal season, you try and support your predators and leave some tall grass in the headlands and try not to pasture-down too much. You can make a big difference and win on your gopher situation by shooting,” says Merrill.
Across the Prairies, it is a time-honoured tradition to get out the .22 for a pre-season cleaning to herald the opening of the gopher season. Spending a couple of hours a day, or a day a week before the beginning of May out in the field can make a world of difference, without the risk of poisoning the food chain.
Welcome a hawk
There are many ways to support natural predators of the gopher — and that includes managing gopher numbers rather than eradicating them entirely. Much like the salmon run for the grizzly bear, gophers are a short-term, but critically important food source for many species such as foxes, coyotes, hawks, eagles, and in some areas, even for bears.
Erecting one or two nesting platforms for hawks on each quarter is one strategy to aid predators in gopher control. “We certainly encourage that, and it’s way more effective in the east part of the province than it is in the west. In the east, even two big round bales stuck end on end constitutes a pretty good nesting station and works quite well,” says Merrill. A good rule of thumb is to take a look around, and if the prairie is treeless for two or three quarters, nesting platforms can be a sound investment.
If there are any fox dens in the vicinity of a gopher population, poison bait will assure the demise of the local fox family. Though quite stealthy and not often seen, weasels are the top predator of gophers. Though snakes can make some people squirm, bull snakes and rattlesnakes happily contribute to ground squirrel management.
The males return underground the first of July, with females following two weeks later, and the juveniles joining their parents in August. Of course, there are always a few individuals having too much fun to make curfew. “If he’s out running around in September, he’s burning body fat instead of building it and he’s not going to make ’er,” says Merrill.