Caddyshack revisited

The gopher and Bill Murray go face-to-face.
Caddyshack had a cute little gopher that outsmarted Bill Murray. The ones that appear in my backyard are not as cute or comical.

The first time a gopher invaded my backyard, I had a frightening face-to-face encounter. A gopher hole appeared a few months after my new landscape was installed and I had my own Caddyshack” experience (enjoy the video).

As the first gopher hole appeared, I went to the internet to find a way to get rid of the gopher. I read that you could drown them by placing a hose in the hole. However, even if the arrival is new, water won’t drown it but simply flush it out of the tunnel. You will still have a gopher somewhere in your backyard and a muddy mess spreading quickly. I learned this the hard way.

I saw the mound one morning and ran out there with the hose, confident in what I had read. I shoved the hose down the tunnel and turned on the water full force. As the water surfaced, a couple of bubbles appeared in the hole. I got down on my hands and knees over the hole to inspect them. As I hovered about 12 inches above the hole I realized the bubbles were nostrils. At that moment, the gopher flew out of the hole at me.

I fell back with the still-running hose in hand. As I lay under the fountain of water shooting above me, that little 6-inch gopher stood on its hind legs, bore its teeth and claws and gave a powerful impression of a grizzly bear. The intimidation worked as I jumped to my feet in a panic and struck it with the end of the hose as water sprayed everywhere. For days, as I peered into the trash can, I did so with trepidation. I was sure that little grizzly bear was waiting, ready to fly out of the can at me.

MY NEMESIS

As you can tell, nothing frustrates me as much as gopher mounds in my yard. I spend about 10 hours a week doing yard work. I baby new fruit trees, plant and feed annual vegetables religiously and pull weeds within days of their appearance, so you can imagine my frustration as large hills of soil appeared again in my yard last week.

Gopher up close
Gophers can be 4-8 inches, depending upon age. They have very long teeth and claws.

Although this story seems a bit “grisly,” I am writing about this topic because it is a problem throughout the Southwest. Some people have gophers and others have moles. They eat vegetation, will destroy the roots of trees, bite through sprinkler systems, and damage a lawn. People and pets also sustain injuries from stepping into the holes or tunnels as the ground caves in. I don’t know of a gardener or farmer who has dealt with gophers who speaks kindly of them.

Don’t get me wrong – I respect wildlife and believe that when you can do so, catch and release anything you can’t bear to have in your yard. Everything has a purpose and we have invaded their territory; they haven’t invaded ours. Ants and gophers till the ground. Squirrels and birds plant through the seeds they spread. Many wasps are also pollinators. Snakes eat scorpions and some even eat poisonous snakes … and gophers. You get the idea.

YOUR OPTIONS

So I catch and release every creature in my backyard EXCEPT gophers because I have found that there isn’t a successful way to remove them other than to use traps or poison. Poison creates problems for other creatures, including  pets or birds, that might eat the dead gopher or the poison.

First, let’s talk about the ineffective controls that will appear on the internet:
Flooding the tunnels: Even though this worked once for me, it rarely works in a backyard because the gophers build raised dens and laugh at you as the water passes them by in their extensive tunnel system. This technique just turns your yard into a mud hole. Also, you have helped them because you just softened the ground for more tunnels.

Home remedies (the internet is full of them!): Juicy Fruit gum, Ex-Lax, dog poop, coffee grounds, chili powder. None of these are effective. It just buys the gopher time to dig more holes and as in the movie “Caddyshack,” he is laughing at your foolish attempts.
Vibrating sticks, sound, or exhaust gas: The sticks and sound do nothing but drive you crazy and give you a false sense of security as the tunnels grow. The exhaust gas can kill you or start an underground fire.

One very effective tool is the Rodenator but it is for agricultural use, not the homeowner. It costs about $1,500 and is extremely powerful. It blows up tunnels and causes a concussion, killing the rodent immediately. They are used at airbases, golf courses, and farms. I keep picturing the block wall between my neighbor and me lifting up from the pressure. Just watch the video and you will see what I mean. I doubt your HOA or neighbors would approve as they hear an explosion and see dirt rise over their fence.

Bill Murray had his own version of a Rodenator in Caddyshack.

I use the DK-1 trap because it is very effective and doesn’t let the rodent suffer.

Traps can be a very effective and organic way to eradicate the gopher. The trap I use is the DK-1 trap. It is the only trap I have found to work consistently and it is the most humane because, to put it nicely, it takes the gopher out instantly. I have only found it available on the internet. Multiple traps exist but avoid the small ones sold in most nurseries. They can be effective but they are cruel because it can take hours for the gopher to die. Some traps are set in the tunnel runway and others into the exit hole near the surface.

GOPHER PSYCHOLOGY

To make any trap work, you have to understand a gopher’s behavior. Once you have melded your brain with theirs, you can decide what trap works best for you.

Perfect gopher mounts are crecent-shaped.
A perfect gopher mound is shaped like a crescent moon. The hole is in the center at the curve.

Gophers are nocturnal. They are also solitary except when they have a litter, which is about twice a year. This means that in most cases, you are only dealing with one gopher. Their most active times are from dusk to dawn. They push out fine soil through a hole to create their extensive tunnel system, which is used to access the roots and plants in your yard. A perfectly shaped gopher hole forms a moon and the hole is centered at the curve. However, most gophers don’t understand the architectural plan for their dirt piles.

They eat the vegetation roots underground but they also like tender surface plants and will pull them into their tunnels by digging holes next to them. I lost a young tomato plant as a gopher pulled it directly through a hole and into its tunnel, leaving only a couple of leaves on the surface.

If you check the mound the first day it appears, you have the best chance of catching the gopher because the hole may still be active; the gopher is nearby and probably still digging. Often you will have to remove some of the dirt from the mound to find the hole but be careful as you reach in to prepare it for a trap. You could be bitten. I use a narrow hand trowel and wear gloves just to be safe.

If you want to use a tunnel trap, you need to locate the main run, usually about 12-18 inches below ground. If you have two holes, you can follow the approximate path by drawing a mental line between the two. Use a rod or long screwdriver to locate the tunnel run. You will have to remove soil from a small portion of the tunnel carefully, lay your trap into the tunnel then cover it with a board to block out the light if it is a standard trap. The one in the video is called the Black Box and you won’t need a board for it. This type of trap is designed to catch the gopher as it runs through the tunnel toward the end.

I use the DK-1 trap because I find it the easiest and most effective, although it takes some strength to set it. I can use it at the opening instead of mid-way in the tunnel. As soon as the hole appears, I enlarge the hole opening only as much as I need, set the trap and carefully ease it into the hole. Secure the trap with a rod so it can’t be pulled into the tunnel. In this case, I leave the hole open because this trap is designed to capture the gopher as it pushes against the trigger with soil to close the hole. The gopher is nocturnal, so it likes to keep its hole closed during the day both to hold back the light and predators. Its actions are like yours when the kids leave the back door open. You shout, “I told you to close the back door!” and you walk over to close it. The pesky gopher sees the light at the end of the tunnel and realizes the “door” isn’t closed. It will push soil forward to close it and doesn’t realize it is pushing over the top of the trap. The soil it pushes hits the trigger and the trap fires.

I know this is a rather graphic article and may offend some who believe that even gophers should be allowed to invade a yard. However, even if you don’t care about your lawn or plants, a turned ankle in a hole may change your mind. If you still don’t want to remove the gophers, then consider them great tillers of your soil. You just can’t control where they do it.

To prevent damage to raised beds, the best defense is to use hardware cloth at the bottom of the bed before you add the soil. If the hardware cloth mesh is half-inch or smaller, it will prevent gophers and moles from entering the bed underground. Moles and gophers won’t climb higher than about 12 inches, so the raised sides of the bed will keep them out from above. Bend up at least 4 inches along the inside walls of your bed so they can’t work their way from underneath around the gap near the wall.

To prevent them from entering your yard, you can bury hardware cloth vertically 18-24 inches below your fence. Make sure that there is no space at ground level for them to squeeze between the fence and hardware cloth. This is very difficult to do with block walls because of the cement footings.

If you have gopher stories, please post them in the comments. I would love to commiserate with you.

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Jknapp

I am a certified agriscape designer and Maricopa County Master Gardener. I have been gardening since I was six years old and worked in my grandfather's garden. I believe that the only way to be a responsible gardener is to garden organically. It improves our soil, is safer for us to eat, sustainable and it protects our pollinators and soil from chemical poisoning.