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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Pocket Gophers - the True Tunnel Visionaries

by John Stuart

The native fertility of any soil is easily taken for granted by those larger creatures who walk the earth. Like clean water or good air, the production of healthy soil in wild forests or fields is completely outside the realm of human activity. The language of science can explain some of the characteristics of good growing soil but the particular mix of attributes in a particular soil is always a bit of a mystery. But running my hands through good humusy, aerated soil with lots of organic matter and crawling with all kinds of insects and fungal strands is a sensual treat. You can just feel the life in the soil and it is easy to imagine the miracle of all those tiny bits of life being transformed into larger forms like trees, bears and people.

One of the creatures that has a big “hand” (literally) in digging through the Earth’s skin and contributing to soil fertility is the pocket gopher. Gophers have powerful front legs and sharp claws and large front teeth, like other rodents, that they use to tunnel through soil, usually close to the surface but sometimes going as deep as five feet. Moving as much as four tons of soil in a year, in a territory of only an acre or two, a gopher is a mighty mixer of soil. That a gopher was here, is told by the mounds of dirt on the surface that have been cleaned out of a tunnel system. A vegetarian with poor eyesight, the gopher is continually looking for green stuff to eat but has to find food through its sense of smell and sense of touch with the help of very sensitive whiskers. Many times, I have watched a blade of grass or wildflower quickly disappear as it is pulled underground, as the gopher pulls it into the tunnel without breaking the surface. We have found garden plants like garlic with only two inches of mature green top above the soil. Poking a finger into the hole, we find the gopher tunnel and the neatly severed base of the garlic stalk and the bulb missing.

The “pocket” on a gopher is the cheek pouch on each side of the mouth that is used as a grocery bag. As greens or roots are cut, they are stuffed into the pockets and carried back to the “pantries”.

Gophers, like many other rodents, make little pantries of stored food, including high value roots like garlic and carrots in the garden, or in the forest, glacier lilies and spring beauty bulbs. (Both of these wildflower bulbs are also grizzly food). Winter is no obstacle to the gopher, and they tunnel away beneath the snow. Because the snow gives them cover from predators, they can get rid of excess tunnel dirt by making a tunnel in the snow and then pushing the dirt into the snow cavity. In the spring, these dirt ropes are obvious, lying on the surface, after snow melt.

Pocket gophers are major contributors to soil health. Gopher tunnels close to the surface help water infiltration and as the tunnels collapse, surface organic matter is gradually mixed with the deeper soil. Their tunnels help to loosen compacted soil as you quickly realize when you see a clean-out mound right in the middle of a dirt road. It is amazing that they can even dig through such dense soil. The tunnels also provide cover and travel routes for lizards, salamanders, voles, snakes and many kinds of insects. Gopher’s habit of carrying food from one place to another helps distribute all kinds of plants to new growing spots (gophers either never quite eat all of their pantries or something eats them, leaving the roots to sprout and grow). One of the overlooked attributes of all wild animals is the value of their scat. The constant recycling of vegetable and animal bodies is part of the miracle of a healthy system and the presence of wild animals is critical to the health of the forest, grassland or whatever system they live within. Gophers, in turn, provide a valuable food source for weasels, coyotes, bobcats, hawks and owls.

People have a great capacity for assigning either beneficial or nasty attributes to wild animals depending on the context. Appreciating wildlife and their life requirements from their own point of view requires that people avoid wearing blinders and allow different rooms in their brains for the same animal. If we have to control an animal like gophers within our garden or hay field, there is no reason to extend that point of view beyond the garden or hayfield fence. All of God’s critters have good reasons to be here and we need to minimize our own conflicts with them. I have a feeling that the pocket gopher would add its own little refrain, “Can you dig it?”

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