What’s in a name? Ask a ground squirrel or a gopher

GO FIGURE Alberta’s lone gopher species is actually beneficial, with each individual turning more than 16 tons of soil yearly without disturbing the surface

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Although we call them gophers, they are actually ground squirrels and five species call Alberta home. Pocket gophers do exist in Alberta, but they have much smaller eyes, larger teeth and aren’t as “cute” looking as the vermin people refer to as gophers.

  • Richardson’s ground squirrel — Spermophilus richardsonii

The most common and widespread ground squirrel, Richardson’s have large litters of between four and nine young. They are found in prairie habitat, and prefer short grass and dry conditions. They are considered an agricultural pest in Alberta.

  • Columbian ground squirrel — Spermophilus columbianus

This species is larger than Richardson’s, and has grey fur with some spots with red fur on its face, forelegs and tail. They are found at higher elevations in alpine meadows of the Rockies, average 3.5 young per litter, and in B.C., they cannot be hunted indiscriminately because of concern over their long-term sustainability. They are still considered an agricultural pest in Alberta, though their range is limited to the foothills and mountain meadows.

  • Thirteen-lined ground squirrel — Spermophilus tridecemlineatus

Easily spotted due to the 13 white lines running down their body, this species is widespread but dense populations are rare. They are still considered an agricultural pest in Alberta, but are rarely seen outside of the Three Hills area.

  • Golden-mantled ground squirrel — Spermophilus lateralis

Found only in high-altitude mountain ranges, this species looks like a chipmunk because of the white stripe on its sides.

  • Franklin’s ground squirrel — Spermophilus franklinii

This species sports a longer, bushier tail than its counterparts, and prefers aspen parkland, shrub land and tall-grass prairie. There are some reported in eastern Alberta, but the species is much more common in eastern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They are slightly larger than the Richardson’s and can climb trees. They are still considered an agricultural pest in Alberta.

  • Northern pocket gopher — Thomomys talpoides

Pocket gophers create large mounds of soil, often incorrectly referred to as “mole hills.” This species lives primarily underground and digs huge networks of horizontal tunnels for underground root grazing. They remain active during winter, and emerge under the cover of darkness to snack on green vegetation in summer. They look huskier and darker than ground squirrels, and have smaller eyes and bigger front teeth. They are beneficial, with each individual turning more than 16 tons of soil in just one year — without disturbing the surface.

Short lifespan

Ground squirrels can live to the ripe old age of three years, although a large percentage will die before their first birthday. They breed in early March and have a gestation period of four to five weeks, with young emerging above ground at the beginning of May. Technically classified as omnivores, they prefer plain, old grass for a main course.

“They will eat the carcass of another dead animal or insects, but their diet is probably 80 to 90 per cent vegetation,” said Phil Marrill, an inspector with Alberta Agriculture.

Anyone who has ever driven down a lonely gravel road between March and June will remember the first time they ever saw a gopher poke its bloody face out from the innards of his cousin, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.

“If it’s early, they will surely feed on carcasses because they are hungry, but if you put a bait station out and had grain in it and then a carcass in another one, there would be very little uptake of the carcass,” said Marrill.

“It could be moisture and maybe when they’re short on minerals or something they’ll be a little more attracted to it, too. They seem to scavenge on each other a little bit.”

Though as unpopular as the gophers, badgers are a quintessential piece of the prairie, and rely on ground squirrels during the months they are out. In B.C., researchers found the badger population sharply declining, and launched a recovery strategy in 2008. Marrill said he was unaware of any badger population studies in Alberta, but strongly suspects they’re on the decline.

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