EDITOR’S NOTE: The columns of Bill Duncan are being reprinted in The News-Review. Duncan, who died in November 2011, wrote a weekly column for The News-Review and The Capital Press of Salem from 1981 to 2011. Duncan wrote the following column in November 1991. His thoughts are still pertinent to today.
About this time of the year I start my annual war on gophers. I choose this time on the advice of an old gopher trapper I once interviewed for a news story.
He was an independent trapper who made his living solely on the bounty paid by Irvine Ranch in Southern California for trapping gophers.
The Irvine people were glad to pay bounty on those subterranean nuisances that raised havoc with the irrigation of the 93,000-acre ranch, sending irrigation water down gopher holes to a neighbor’s grove a mile away.
I’ve long ago forgotten the trapper’s name, but not his tactics. He used the California box trap, a wooden device with a wire hangman’s noose that triggered a wire clamp that impinged the trapped gopher about midsection, bringing instant suffocation.
These wooden-box traps are difficult to find today. I have four left in my inventory and I have, of late, resorted to a similar box trap, but one made of metal.
I’m sold on the box trap. I trap all year long as soon as I see a mound of freshly turned earth. This is wise in the Umpqua Valley of Oregon where I live, since a single gopher will make several mounds and the elimination of one gopher may halt a large area of damage.
This time of year is best for a declared war on gophers. The ground is moist. The gophers are actively working to store winter supplies. They are concerned over flooding by winter rains so they come up to investigate any light source.
The box trap leaves a small hole at the end which becomes the light at the end of the tunnel for the gopher. When it comes up to investigate, it sticks its blunted snout in the wire noose and — snap, there goes another gopher.
I let the gopher dig its own grave. When I remove it from the trap, I take a stick and push the remains back in the hole. That’s called recycling a gopher.
Gophers like to lead a solitary life except during breeding season and will seldom share a tunnel with another gopher. Killing them off before they breed, usually in February and March, will cut down on the numbers to battle in the spring and summer months. The average gopher litter is four to six.
This is not a one-sided war, however. I may seem like a Goliath to the gopher, but this underground David has more than a slingshot going for it. The gopher is wily and seldom travels in a straight line. The mounds it makes may be some distance from the main run and when I dig down to set the trap, I usually find no trace of a tunnel. The gopher has deftly disposed of the dirt gnawed out as it lateraled. The side tunnel is only to confuse Goliath.
I have found a trap sprung, only to discover when I pulled it out that the gopher packed it solid with little round balls of earth. If it could have written a note, it would have said:
The human predator is only one worry for the gopher. Anyone who has watched a cat lie still in a pasture knows the cat is waiting for the gopher to carelessly allow its forelegs to push dirt to the surface. Ever watch a hawk dive-bombing a field to clutch a gopher in its talons?
A gopher snake is worth 100 traps to a farmer. It slithers down in the hole in pursuit of the prey. The gopher must also defend itself against weasels, foxes, badgers, wolves and other carnivores.
In the Northwest the pocket gopher is increasing rather than diminishing, so there is little danger this tawny brown, buck-toothed pest will be declared an endangered species. But I’d be happy to help it reach that distinction.