Rumor has it, that the gopher population on Albuquerque Academy campus has historically been tackled with poison. In spite of the poison, the gophers are still present today in numbers not to be ignored. The playing fields and our DOT garden have gopher holes and mounds reminiscent of Swiss cheese.
Besides failing to reduce the gopher population, the application of poison backfired in a disturbing way – a weasel family enticed to our land by the gopher population, suddenly disappeared.
Worried about how the overpopulation of gophers would impact our garden and dedicated to zero use of chemical pesticides, I attended the New Mexico Organic Farming conference last year and met Sam Smallidge an NMSU extension officer. Sam specializes in Wildlife Management in gardens and small farms. I called him last week and invited him to come and help us with our gopher “problem”.
Sam swooped into our garden like Mary Poppins, with a big bag of tools for handling our pesky neighbors.
First, Sam set the ground rules for my students and I. He explained to us that rodent control has been a concern since the beginning of human civilization, and even with 21st century technology, rodents are still alive and well in most of our communities. So eradication is not possible and should not be our goal.
In addition, Sam encouraged us to view the gopher an essentail part of our ecosystem. Gophers provide ecosystem services like soil aeration and are important prey for many of my favorite animals like coopers hawks, coyotes, and the weasel. Encouraging these predators may help us control our gopher population.
Exclusion of the gophers from our raised beds has been easy – hard ware cloth lines the bottoms of the beds, and fencing with chicken wire have helped us keep the gophers out of the veggies. Protecting the surrounding meadow and trees will not be so easy.
Choosing a gopher control program requires us to understand our own humanity. Killing is a part of the natural world. A predator takes its prey without concern for minimizing pain. But, to be human means to consider the manner of death. Minimizing suffering should be our goal. Gopher traps are designed to kill quickly and efficiently, though the traps success depends on how and where you place them.
Sam taught us how to hunt our gopher. No bait is needed to trap a gopher, but t is important to place the trap in the most recently excavated tunnel. Walking out onto the landscape and stomping each mound down with your feet and then returning the next day will help locate the most recent gopher activity.
Sam then taught us to read the gopher mound’s structure in order to find the gopher’s main tunnel by poking the earth with a long metal rod. He showed us how to dig out the tunnel with a Bonsai knife, in order to place the trap. He showed us several different types of traps – each with a different advantage. Most traps should be tethered and flagged so that the trap does not disappear into the crevasses or tall grasses of the landscape. (link for gopher trap choices and management)
We are now heading into winter, and our vegetable gardens have been put to bed. But since gophers do not hibernate, we can still hunt our prey and will now have more time to concentrate our efforts on reducing our gopher population. Next week, my students and I will set our gopher traps. Once the traps have been set, we will wait a few days before checking them to see if they have caught a gopher. Together, my students and I will learn the big lesson that few city folks will get – taking life in order to give life.
As the Native Americans do, we shall say a prayer of thanks to Mother Earth for the abundance of life as we return the gopher body to the soil.