A gopher (or "pocket gopher") is a burrowing, herbivorous rodent. This mammal's native range is from Central America to Canada. In the United States, it lives in the West, the Great Plains, and the Southeast. An adult gopher becomes 6 inches long (not counting the tail) or longer, depending on the species. Most types weigh anywhere from 4 to 13 ounces.
Unfortunately, in some regions, other animals such as squirrels and moles are sometimes colloquially referred to as "gophers." Adding to the confusion is that there is more than one genus (and many species or subspecies) of gophers. For example, we have the Western pocket gopher (Thomomys genus) and the Eastern pocket gopher (Geomys genus).
Fortunately, for the purpose of getting rid of gophers from your yard, it is not important to delve into distinctions between these genera. Gophers can cause extensive damage to your yard, garden, and utility lines, so you will want to get rid of them sooner rather than later.
3 Ways to Get Rid of Gophers
There are three non-lethal ways to get rid of a gopher.
Live-trapping is not only relatively safe and relatively humane (compared to poisoning) but also allows you a close look at the gopher before getting rid of it. The idea is to capture the critter alive, then move it to a suitable location far away.
For best results, use a live trap designed for small-to-medium-sized pests. Set it up on a level surface. The best location is near the opening to the gopher's burrow. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce make a good bait, as does peanut butter.
Inspect the trap frequently, and relocate any trapped gophers to an approved location at least 5 miles away. Live-trapping is safe around pets and children provided that you inspect the trap regularly (lest a pet get trapped in it for an extended period).
Some parts of the U.S., such as the state of Massachusetts, restrict or outright prohibit the practice of relocating wildlife. Make appropriate inquiries locally first before choosing live-trapping as your method of getting rid of a pest.
Using Scented Repellents
There are gopher repellents targeted both to gophers' sense of smell and to their sense of touch. Castor-oil-based repellents sold in spray bottles attack the gopher's sense of smell. After applying them over a gopher tunnel, get your garden hose and give the area a good soaking so that the repellent percolates down to the tunnel. A downside for such repellents is that you must reapply them when they lose their potency.
Using Sonic Repellents
Ultrasonic repellents disperse vibrations through the ground that a gopher can feel. As a result, the rodent senses that it is threatened and decides to move elsewhere. Dig a small hole near the gopher's tunnel and insert the device at the bottom of the hole.
The use of either scented or sonic repellants has this downside, though: The gopher won't be driven very far away. If the gopher sets up shop in your neighbor's yard, it may well return to its old residence until you repel it again (plus, your neighbor won't be happy).
Signs of a Gopher Infestation
The most obvious evidence that points to a gopher infestation is the presence of mounds of dirt in your yard. Gophers tend to dig tunnels, so be careful walking around your yard as there could be sinkholes. Evidence of a creature eating your landscape plants or gnawing on utility lines and PVC pipes could also be an indication of gophers' presence.
What Causes a Gopher Infestation?
Within its native range, a gopher may dig its burrows just about anywhere where there is friable soil and the land is not subject to flooding. Gophers are also attracted by the presence of any of the wide range of plant parts that they eat. Since they spend so much time underground, a lot of the damage they do to your landscaping plants is done to the roots and to other underground plant parts, such as bulbs and corms. But they will also sometimes venture above-ground and eat your vegetables, grasses, or flowers. They will even girdle trees by chewing the bark, as do those other herbivorous rodent pests: voles.
How to Prevent a Gopher Infestation
Since humans also prefer friable soil (for gardening) and land that does not become flooded, it is difficult to avoid getting gophers simply by selecting property not amenable to them.
However, gophers must eat. Like many pests, the key to avoiding an infestation is to deprive them of food sources as much as possible. Since they eat plants, keeping accessible roots and vegetation down to a minimum helps. And while it is difficult for plant lovers to make such a sacrifice, remember that one way to garden is in raised beds. One benefit of raised beds is that they can be gopher-proofed.
As long as you line the bottom of a raised bed with a suitable wire-mesh product, gophers will not be able to tunnel up to the plants in the raised beds to access the roots that they like to eat. While your average chicken wire may come to mind first, it is not as good for this job as other products meant to be underground. The problem is that if the galvanization on buried wire mesh isn't thick enough, it will rust.
Happily, you can buy types of wire mesh made specifically for burial under raised beds to keep out tunneling critters. Some are even referred to as "gopher wire." Regardless of what they are called, be sure to look for products made with stainless steel wire. A widely available product you can use to line the bottom of a raised bed and deprive gophers of access is "hardware cloth," which isn't really a cloth but a mesh.
Moreover, you can grow plants that gophers tend not to eat, making your property less inviting to them than it would be otherwise. Try growing daylily (Hemerocallis), Lenten rose (Helleborus x hybridus), or sage (Salvia).
Gopher vs. Prairie Dog
Gophers and prairie dogs share certain similarities and are often confused. However, they are two different animals. They are similar in size and shape. Both are classified as rodents. Both tunnel into the ground. Both are considered pests for their ability to damage plants, cause sinkholes, and harbor fleas. They do have differences in their appearance, though.
If you are able to see them up close (perhaps most safely with a cellphone camera or binoculars), the most noticeable difference will be in the teeth. Gophers display huge, flattish incisors at the front of the mouth. There are two on top and two on the bottom. Sometimes only the two on top will be showing, giving this rodent a buck-toothed appearance. Also, gophers have long claws on their front paws, while prairie dogs do not.
From a distance (or at a quick glance), the more apparent difference may be in coat color. Gophers usually have dark brown fur. Prairie dogs have light brown fur.
They also differ in their habits. You are more likely to spot a prairie dog because this rodent is not shy about appearing above ground right in the middle of the day. Moreover, they are social animals, so if your property suffers from a prairie dog infestation, there will be multiple prairie dogs.
Gophers, by contrast, are shy, spending most of their time underground. Furthermore, they are solitary (outside of the mating season).
Why Are They Called "Pocket" Gophers?
The "pocket" in their name comes from the large pouches in their cheeks. They use these pouches (or "pockets") to carry food and nesting materials in. If you live in the northeastern United States and are unfamiliar with gophers, you have probably witnessed the same behavior in a rodent native to your region: the Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus).
Do Gophers Bite?
Yes. If a gopher feels threatened, it will use its sharp incisors to bite humans and pets. Considering that gophers carry diseases, this fact is highly problematic, especially if you have young children or pets in the household.
Are Gophers Good for Anything?
Yes! They help increase soil aeration through their tunneling. They also help fertilize the soil with their droppings. So, after you have gotten rid of a gopher from your yard and have repaired the damage it created, you may look upon these benefits as recompense for having to deal with a gopher. However, during the period when the gopher is active on your property, you are unlikely to find much consolation through meditating upon these future benefits.