A Little Bit Western


The Year(s) of the Gopher

Apr 15, 2014

The arrival of spring brings feelings of hope, renewal and much needed sunshine and warm weather. Across the board, springtime is a welcome and festive time for all. There is, however, one thing that spring brings, that I do not enjoy…

Gophers. Richardson’s ground squirrels. AKA The Bane of My Existence.

It’s a little awkward sometimes, my strong dislike for gophers. In addition to being a rancher, I’m actually also a trained and practising rangeland agrologist. This means I wander the prairie grasslands, poking and prodding and counting and identifying and generally assessing, from a scientific point of view, the state of a particular pasture grassland ecosystem. And gophers are an important component of the prairie ecosystem and a critical link to many prairie food chains.

But I don’t care.

On a beautiful native prairie grassland landscape, in well-balanced numbers, gophers are all fine and good. Go ahead, little rodents, and enable a thriving, functional ecosystem. But on my personal, non-native-prairie property (including but not limited to my yard, tame pasture and cropland) please cease and desist. Or if you must exist, at the very least do so in a normal manner.

Several years ago, shortly after my Other Half and I set up permanent camp on a previously uninhabited homestead, we, along with our neighbours, were in the midst of a very serious regional drought. Cropland and pasture land was blowing away in spite of every effort. Wells dried up. Crops failed. Any sub- or surface water that did exist was at an all-time dangerously low quality for human and livestock consumption. Gophers moved in. And they set up permanent camp, eating anything and everything they could get their little varmint paws on. In their wake they left behind a barren, desolate, hole-riddled landscape. You still can’t ride a horse across some of our pastures at a speed greater than a slow walk, because going any faster is, well, dangerous.

The open, dry winters we experienced favoured their existence and the latest I saw a gopher running around at that time was on December 23. The first gopher I saw appear was on Valentine’s Day. That’s not much hibernation down time. If it sounds bleak, that’s because it was.

Attempting to establish a new yard site, I trapped the little gaffers in the two acres immediately surrounding my house. My three traps would snap almost as quickly as I could set them. Gophers not only ate fifteen out of sixteen tomato plants two hours after I planted them, they decimated them to the point that I questioned if I had actually planted them in the first place. Gophers dug down beside our foundation so that you could hear them from inside our basement. They swarmed my newly planted tree saplings and gnawed the buds right out of the bark. That was just my yard. I can’t even describe the toll that they had on crops, tame hay and pasture landscapes, and the corresponding pocketbooks of every farmer depending on those resources.
Eventually time, precipitation, and incredibly important natural predators caught up to the infestation. To this day, around our ranch we truly value the coyotes, foxes and numerous raptors that gradually helped bring the gopher population back into balance. All’s well that ends well.

I’m not reliving this time to dwell on a negative experience. Rather, this may provide you with a little background information on why the first appearance of a gopher’s beady little eyes will never be a welcome harbinger of spring for me. And why I love to see hawks circling overhead, or coyotes pouncing in the pasture. And now you know why I press on the accelerator just a little harder when I see one crossing the road.

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