Richardson Ground Squirrels, or gophers, are one of the major problems in forage stands. Not only do they rip up the soil, leaving mounds and holes to deal with, they also attract predators that leave larger holes and mounds when they start digging. In 2007 in the southwest part of Saskatchewan, there were farmers who lost 50 to 70 acres worth of hay, pasture, or crop production to gopher consumption.
Once established in a good productive area, the gopher population will explode without proper predation control.
Know your enemy
To adequately control gophers, you must understand your enemy. When they wake from hibernation, they spend the first 28 days raising their young. They only mate once a year, raising five to 10 young. Their tunnel system will have five to seven exits. If one gopher dies, another will take the burrow over. The average gopher will live to four years, males less. Gophers are omnivores, meaning they eat vegetation, insects and road killed gophers. They eat their dead to decrease the attention of predators. They prefer to live in forage stands or other areas of minimal disturbance.
To control gophers, the key is keeping them under control and maintaining a good predator balance. Under low predator populations and dry conditions, gopher numbers rise quickly. In areas of higher rainfall gophers will drown in their burrows and suffer from increased disease — numbers will go down.
One of the things we forget in the time of technology is how people controlled problems back in the turn of last century. For example, under grazing, which leaves taller forage, promoting existence of predators like weasels and garter snakes, and deep ripping. Deep ripping is effective at destroying gopher burrows, but it opens a new can of worms with soil erosion, brings rocks to the surface, and brings up fresh calcium and magnesium to the soil which will decrease phosphate, potassium, and zinc availability.
Ferrets as predators
One of the animals that has all but disappeared is the black footed ferret. Ninety per cent of their diet is made up of ground rodents. Since they are very endangered, using domestic ferrets to control gophers may be an accessible option.
Dr. Don Salmon says when he was growing up on his family farm, they regularly used ferrets in their pastures to control gophers. Take the ferrets out in the spring, and provide them additional shelter, like a small dog house. You may have to supply them with supplemental food, like dog food. The only negative that Dr. Salmon mentioned was the fact when they picked up the ferrets in late summer they were full of fleas. Because they were domesticated, they would approach the owners — actually climbing up into Dr. Salmon’s father’s pockets to be transported home. Ferrets proved to be an effective biological control of the gophers. They are also very effective at rat control in bale yards, silage piles, and elevators to name a few places.
Birds as predators
Another effective strategy is setting up a raptor or owl perch in areas of gopher activity. The perch can be made of anything that the birds can land on like oilstem pipe, fence posts, round bales, or planting trees. With these strategic observation posts, the birds are able to land and look for targets.
Leaving ungrazed ground also creates habitat for ground predators like fox, coyote, skunks, weasels, and the predatory birds. Having shrubs and tall grass around the gopher colonies will allow predators the ability to sneak up on the gophers and effectively hunt them. Gophers work as a group to warn of potential predators, so creating cover will give the predators a chance to get closer.
Managing and promoting predators like ferrets, weasels, and birds of prey around gopher, or Richardson Ground Squirrel, colonies will help to naturally balance the rodent population. When gopher populations are controlled, other digging predators like badgers and coyotes will have less to dig after. Once the balance of predator-prey is re-established, forage production will improve. †