In the trenches

“Pocket gophers are fossorial (burrowing) rodents, so named because they have fur-lined pouches outside of the mouth, one on each side of the face.”

Our first encounter was the stuff of pure chance. There I was sweating, cursing and fighting a bucking rototiller, desperately seeking my inner farmer. Deep inside that agrarian angst, I hardly noticed as the Master Craftsmen Yard Master spat up a small ball of fur complete with giant incisors. “Good God!” I yelled aloud, fully expecting garden carnage. “What have I done?”

I reached down to the quivering creature, praying it had squirted unscathed through the tines of death and got my answer when its squinty eyes opened. The small beast then playfully scratched at my glove with Neanderthal claws before darting for the bushes.

“Man, am I sorry,” I told the little fur ball as I gently picked it up with a shovel and packed it to the edge of the yard. I set the traumatized animal on a nice soft spot in the shade, complete with wildflower ambience and a trickling water source. “Good luck out there, little guy,” I told the helpless rodent and returned to my tiller.

“The northern pocket gopher is one of the more damaging rodents found around the home and farm. It affects such diverse crops as alfalfa and pasture forage, Christmas tree plantations, row crops, shelter belts, and flower and vegetable gardens.”

Several weeks later, I realized something was amiss. The first sign was a series of small brown pyramids that had magically popped up not far from my gopher relocation camp. Irrigation backfire? Dirt pimples? Miniature alien landing zone? I decided to forget about it and casually shoveled up the dirt.

Daylight crested the following morning, the coffee bubbled out of the machine, and I walked outside for a Maxwell House moment. But instead of a pastoral sunrise, I looked out on a front yard pockmarked with dirt mounds. I went ahead and whistled my way through some more dirt removal and then took a trip down to the veggie garden for an early summer check-up and a little pick-me-up. That’s when the tremor struck.

After first inspection, I could only assume a warren of rabbits, small herd of goats and busload of starving tourists had spent the night feasting on my all-you-can-eat salad bar. Heads of romaine were marred by teeth marks. Sweet leaves of endive had been culled, removed and digested. Our basil crop resembled a grove of tiny trees, the lower leaves having vanished in the night. A handful of juvenile cabbages had been nibbled down to their root balls. When I went to pluck one of our prize carrots, I discovered that the sweet fruit had been eaten from bottom to top, leaving nothing but an unsavory stump for me. I pulled several others in rapid succession, and they’d all been devoured. My hands full of denuded veggies, I dropped to my knees, reached for the heavens and screamed, “Vermin!”

“On the average, a single gopher occupies an area of about 2,000 square feet. In ideal habitat, pocket gophers may number 30 or more per acre.”

And so it was that I adopted the persona of “Caddyshack’s” Carl Spackler and set off on a multiyear quest to rid my ranchito of pocket gophers. And just like poor Carl, the rodent eventually dragged me down into the burrow as well as the depths of insanity. “I’ve gotta get inside this guy’s pelt and crawl around for a few days,” I soon found myself muttering, unwittingly speaking in fluent Spacklerese.

My personal war started with sonic mole chasers – a radically overpriced, humane form of varmint control. The chasers buzzed away for months on end with little or no effect, and dirt mounds would laughingly appear next to each of the steel cylinders.

I then turned to a $53 metal trap, complete with spring-loading and shiny, gopher-seeking spikes. After placing the death machine near an active burrow, I watched it sit idle for weeks. The gopher tunneled everywhere around my miniature guillotine but always managed to dodge the trigger.

In between these missteps, I would alternate between flooding the tunnels and setting off subterranean smoke bombs aptly misnamed “Giant Destroyer.” And after several years on the Western Front, all I had to report was a string of failures and hundreds of simoleons misspent on my new hobby.

“Trapping is slow and expensive in terms of time, labor and materials. Because of the complexity of gopher burrows, fumigant gases disperse through the burrow system poorly. Poison baits are frequently used for pocket gopher control but with varying degrees of success.”

Having resigned myself to sharing my corner of La Plata County with one, two or a dozen of its native inhabitants, I found myself back at the helm of the tiller last weekend. As usual, the Master C. was bucking, hopping and jacking me through my soilage. But next summer’s crop was also calling off in the distance, pulling me through my bump and grind.

And right when I least expected, the tiller hit a vein of déjà vu. Without even trying I’d struck pocket gopher gold. Yep, my ball of fur was back, surviving another trip through the tiller blades and quivering at my feet. I’m not sure if it was that original pioneering gopher, his grandson, second cousin or an entirely new immigrant, but my longstanding quest was over. I was now a mere shovel stroke, steel toe boot or shotgun blast away from a final victory over my longstanding nemesis.

But right when my fickle finger of fury was about to reign down, those darling little eyes started squinting and his cute legs and adorable claws wiggled off toward the weeds. Call me a softie, but Pockety won another heartstring victory in that final round. Try as I might, I just couldn’t bring the hammer down.

And while I may not be much of an exterminator, I do deserve a little credit. I’m happy to report that my relocation skills have improved dramatically in the last few years. It is true that my rodent nightmare is once again lapping it up in gopher paradise. But I am happy to report that the fossorial fiend is burrowing far from my personal cabbage patch, and much closer to Carl’s golf course.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows