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Earth Notes
Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Nature’s Pesky Gardener

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National Park Service
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  They’re an animal many gardeners love to hate, though they’re rarely seen. Ribbons of dirt strung across the ground, and sometimes disappearing plants, are the only sign most people will see of pocket gophers, rodents that themselves are very active gardeners.

The dirt trails are created as these small animals excavate underground tunnels where they live, store food, and bear young.

An adult gopher weighs only about half a pound, but it can bring as much as two tons of soil to the surface in a year using its protruding incisors and clawed front feet. Gophers prefer valleys and meadows where dirt is loose and easy to dig.

Strict vegetarians, pocket gophers eat grasses, roots, tubers, and other plant material. They’re especially hard on alfalfa and aspens. They carry their food from field to home in fur-lined cheek pouches or “pockets” – hence their common name.

A lone male or female inhabits each tunnel system, mostly staying out of sight except during breeding season. Should they emerge and stray too far, they become prey for owls, badgers, coyotes, and snakes. Humans, who often consider them pests, are also predators.

But pocket gophers are environmental do-gooders: their burrowing aerates soil, increases water infiltration, and adds organic matter. To deter their diggings, we can put wire cages around roots of plantings and enclose buried cables and irrigation lines — and allow these interesting animals to go about their everyday, subterranean lives.

Earth Notes is produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.