Friend and foe: Thomomys bottae, also known as Botta’s Pocket Gopher. (Photo: David A. Hofmann)

Learning to Live with Gophers: Does It Have to Be Us vs. Them?

by Team Petrichor

Now that Spring is here, little mounds are rising up throughout our gardens here in the Altadena foothills and we are pretty sure this is happening in your area too. Your first reaction is probably an anguished groan. Then comes the annoyance and perhaps even anger as you watch your gorgeous native garden erupt with volcano-like mounds of disrupted soil. OOOHHH, the frustration that comes with the idea that your beautiful wildflowers may never bloom or that your thoughtfully chosen groundcovers and shrubs won’t survive this. “But this is my garden!” you might exclaim. “I worked so hard to get it this far and I’m not gonna let anyone or anything ruin that for me!” Notice that last word though… ME. Ego check: this is not just about me. Take a deep breath. Pause. Think. Question.

As we continue our fascinating journey of understanding nature and her living systems, we are sometimes confronted with dilemmas involving everyday pests that force us to reckon with the “us vs. them” mindset. This construct is rooted in our evolution as a species and extends back to a time when resources were scarce and the tribal mentality was a survival mechanism. But it is also responsible for the most destructive aspects of human nature, when this “othering” takes the form of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy.

It has become clear to us that this us vs. them mindset is also prevalent in our interactions with the rest of the natural world, especially when it comes to some of the most minute creatures such as cockroaches, flies, and ants. We as a species are either scared of them or disgusted by them, but why is that? These fears are also rooted in our evolution, where in order to survive, we had to know which insects’ venomous bites could kill us and which ones could destroy our crops.

Which brings us back to those pesky gophers. Perhaps, when we are confronted by their arrival in our gardens, if we can be in acceptance of what is, we can react by asking questions instead. Questions like: Why are you here?  What is your role in this ecosystem?  Are you really that bad? Am I so focused on having a truly biodiverse garden to support nature that I am unwilling to accept the so-called “pests” who might play a role? Ok, so this might sound a little out there but we did some digging (haha) and want to share some amazing facts about gophers and their role as ecosystem engineers:

Ecological Benefits of Gophers

  • Their burrowing and digging aerates soil, breaks up compacted soils in areas that have been used for agriculture, and brings fresh mineral-rich soil to the surface to promote plant growth
  • Their tunnels capture rain and snowmelt that could otherwise erode soil
  • Their abandoned tunnels provide habitat for other species
  • Their waste fertilizes soil
  • Their activities “generate a dynamic mosaic of nutrients and soil conditions that promotes diversity” (Reichman & Seabloom, 2002)
  • Their presence helps maintain plant communities that are disturbance-dependent

Gophers and other subterranean mammals play key roles in the soil food web. (Graphic: USDA/NRCS)

In our research, most of the solutions that we found for dealing with gophers involved actions that were ultimately fatal: trapping, fumigation, baiting them with toxic bait, flooding their tunnels, even using blow torches and explosive devices. Using toxic bait and rodenticide is the most damaging of these methods because the effects ripple throughout the food chain, endangering and potentially killing larger predators and birds of prey that feed on gophers.

We also came across plenty of practices that take the preventive or protective approach, although the efficacy of these practices vary:

  • Underground fencing around plants
  • Using coarse gravel around dripline
  • Planting species that are less tasty and attract predator species
  • Attracting predators through owl boxes
  • Using solar-powered sonic devices (these are more effective in disturbed soil)
  • Using castor oil in their holes to deter activity
  • Reducing suitable habitat in general or along the property line

I am guilty of trying many of these methods to deter and even eliminate gophers because I did not know enough about them and what amazing work they are doing.  I’ve even tried to let them know I don’t like their mounds of dirt by using a hose and pushing the dirt back down. (Maybe they’ll get the idea and move on?)

A gopher hole in our front garden. (Photo: Studio Petrichor)

At Studio Petrichor, we are on a journey of self-exploration and improvement to hopefully support the regeneration of a dying planet. Why not start by acknowledging what we dislike first and foremost? Can we appreciate the fact that gophers can actually help ecosystems, which in turn help us? Putting our aesthetic desires and need for control aside, we could have a profound awakening if we simply listen, observe, and ask questions, starting with, “How can we live together? Who am I to decide on the life or death of a species that was already here, thriving long before us?”

In closing, our never ending desire to control our environment and our lack of understanding continues to plague our ability to truly see and accept what really matters… LIFE… and the cycles of life. At Studio Petrichor, we remain curiously accepting and acknowledge that being forced to ask the tough questions is a good thing.  If we have COEXIST on a bumper sticker or as a tattoo, are we including creatures great and small in that sentiment?

Have you been practicing coexistence with gophers? We want to know.  Tell us about what is working for you!