What would the West be like without the Gopher?
Sure, he eats a fortune in wheat Sure, he makes a coal mine of the garden Sure, he’s dumb as . . . well, even dumber BUT, asks Robert Collins, Maclean’s prairies editor
THIS YEAR everybody in Alberta and Saskatchewan is saying nice nostalgic things about the buffalo, the Red River cart, the pioneer and even the Russian thistle, but nobody has a good word for the gopher. It seems a trifle unfair because the gopher is noisier than a Red River cart, more nuisance than the thistle, has been hunted more ardently than the buffalo ever was and has been around the west longer than any pioneer. The trouble is, he’s been around too long;
For more than fifty years, westerners have been trying to clobber this crop-eating little rodent with the buck teeth, falsetto voice and receding forehead. They’ve chased him with dogs, clubs, rocks and pitchforks. They’ve tried to drown him, snare him and suffocate him with poison gas. They’ve sniped at him with rifles and slipped him heaping teaspoonfuls of strychnine. Any other varmint would have thrown in the towel long ago, but this one merely goes along whistling and raising six to nine children every year. He simply swamps his enemies with superior numbers and it looks as though they’ll never get rid of the gopher.
Outsiders may be surprised to learn that anyone wants to do away with the beast. They’ve never been quite sure what a gopher is but they’ve always suspected that it’s the farmer’s best friend. That’s because westerners, who can spin a good yarn on most subjects, have really outdone themselves in the case of the gopher. Something about the creature fires their imagination.
For example, Carl Lennie, a Black Diamond, Alta., school principal who once attended Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, used to entrance Maritimers with his tales of life on the prairie, of galloping over the range on horseback with his faithful gopher loping alongside.
“Gophers are pretty savage but we manage to tame them,” Lennie used to say, while his round-eyed listeners pictured a lithe tawny beast something like a mountain lion. “We call them our little prairie panthers.”
Other expatriate westerners tell of gophers hitched to ploughs, gophers big as St. Bernards serving as watchdogs and gophers saddled, bridled and mounted like ponies. Prairie servicemen in various wars
have boosted their standing with girls all over the world by boasting of their ranches back home, stocked with two or three thousand head of gophers. There are still girls in England, France, Germany and Japan who think the gopher is the size and shape of a Texas longhorn.
Of course, the beast is none of these things. He isn’t even a gopher. He’s a Citeilus richardsoni Sabine or Richardson ground squirrel, sometimes nicknamed the flickertail, yellow gopher or prairie gopher. The genuine “pocket gopher” is a similar but smaller beast, more like a mole, and he's so disgusted with the bad reputation the Richardson squirrel’s given him that he won’t show his face above ground in the daylight. Sometimes the Richardson squirrel is also mistaken for the prairie dog but a true prairie dog, although similar in appearance, is larger and belongs to the marmot family. Before this gets any more confusing we may as well go back to calling the Richardson ground squirrel a gopher, as everyone else on the prairie does.
The average gopher is eleven inches long with a three-inch tail, weighs about a pound and wears a light-grey coat with bleached-blond streaks. He digs a burrow that has one front door and up to six back doors, using his flat head to push earth along the underground tunnels. He doesn’t use his head for much else and consequently anybody can outsmart him. Sixty years ago the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton called him a “dull-witted creature” and the gopher’s IQ hasn’t improved since.
The gopher isn’t a fighter, either. Once Seton put one in a cage with a Franklin ground squirrel and a striped ground squirrel. The gopher outweighed them both, but while they danced around belligerently, shoving him and shouting insults, he sat glumly with his head in the corner wondering what the hell Seton was trying to prove.
Being timid, stupid and a poor distance runner to boot, the gopher never strays more than two hundred yards from home. He goes to bed about October and sleeps until March or April. On fine days he likes
to sit on his doorstep, whistling in a sharp squeaky voice like a rusty hinge, chewing a blade of grass and admiring the landscape. With his front teeth hanging from a half-open mouth and a permanently startled expression in his bulging eyes, he resembles a front-row spectator at a burlesque show.
It’s hard to
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What Would theWest Be Like Without the Gopher?
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picture this mild-mannered country boy as a villain but every time he gets hungry the gopher turns into a Mr. Hyde. He eats green wheat, ripe wheat, oats, barley, rye, clover and gardens. He also likes grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, cutworms and wild onions, but wheat is his favorite—an expensive taste, from the farmer’s standpoint. The Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture reports that gophers destroyed three million, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of crops in that province during 1953. At that, it was an off year. 5 Some seasons the gopher eats up to ten million dollars’ worth.
In the 1940s, University of Alberta entomologists John H. Brown and G. Douglas Roy, who studied the gopher for insects he might carry, calculated there are an average of thirty-two hundred gophers to every section (six hundred and forty acres) of prairie land, or about five to the acre. To this, naturalist-author Kerry Wood of Red Deer, Alta., adds that every gopher destroys at least one dollar’s worth of grain a year. Thus, in a typical halfsection field, gophers can do fifteen hundred dollars’ damage.
He Really Hasn’t Many Friends
Moreover, entomologists now know that the gopher is host animal for the fleas that transmit bubonic plague or the “black death.” It’s believed that rats brought plague fleas into California aboard ships; the fleas traveled to the gopher via various other ground squirrels. In 1937 a mink farmer at Stanmore, Alta., died from what was later believed to be the plague, after feeding dead gophers to his mink. Later, entomologists Brown and Roy found six varieties of fleas—including two types of plague carriers—on gophers in the area.
The gopher is also the main host animal for the Rocky Mountain spotted-fever tick; the tick in turn transmits the sometimes-fatal disease to man. Other gopher ticks are apt to transmit tularaemia or rabbit fever, which can also be fatal to man. Finally, some experts suspect that gophers carry equine encephalomyelitis or sleeping sickness, a killer of horses and cattle.
On the other hand, there’s nothing particularly beneficial about the gopher. He has few friends, which is understandable in a creature that eais wild onions. His insect-eating habits don’t begin to compensate for his wheat damage. Mink and fox farmers used to feed gophers to their animals but this practice fell off when the gopher’s diseases became known. Children have tried to domesticate him but he invariably escapes and digs a hole in the lawn. His pelt is no good for fur coats. There were rumors that some westerners ate gophers in the Hungry Thirtie but nobody will admit to being tkhungry.
But, pest or not, the gopher has ii habited the west longer than anyoncan remember. When the white men* came, the Crees pointed out the Mesedjeeahms or “big squirrel.” In 1820 explorer Sir John Richardson saw gophers at Carlton House, a Hudson’s Bay post in the southeastern part of what is now Saskatchewan. Richardson hadn’t discovered anything else that day so he claimed discovery of the rodent and somebody named it after him. No one
knows when the Richardson ground squirrel first became confused with gophers. Some people favor the story of two French explorers who were tramping around the prairies one day when one stumbled and wrenched his ankle.
“W’at ’appened, Jacques?” asked his friend.
“Damn gaufre ’ole.”
Although this account has never been verified, it is known that “gopher” is derived from the French gaufre (honeycomb), referring to the ground squirrel’s underground network of tunnels.
Anyway, what with Confederation, buffalo hunts and the whisky trade, everyone was having too much fun to worry about the gopher and he went right ahead raising nine children every year. Then, in 1882, Ernest Thompson Seton began his exhaustive study of prairie wildlife. When he was finished the gopher didn’t have much privacy left.
Seton accumulated all sorts of disjointed facts. He calculated there were twenty million gophers in Manitoba alone. He reported that the creature was sociable enough but didn’t engage in games. He learned that gophers don’t like to go out in the rain, the hot afternoon sun or at night.
One day Seton and an assistant spent four hours digging up a gopher den. They followed a labyrinth of tunnels to a central sitting room, six inches high and nine inches square, lined with grass and oat hulls. When they got there they found no gophers so they went home.
Another day they waylaid a gopher on his way home from work, persuaded him to empty his bulging cheeks and counted up two hundred and forty grains of wheat and one thousand grains of buckwheat. Naturalists now know that in late summer the gopher fills his burrow with cheeksful of seeds, roots and bulbs—a light snack to tide him over the winter.
They’re Only Worth Three Cents
Meanwhile, the Manitoba government offered a bounty of three cents per dead gopher in 1889 but, as Seton remarked, “The only tangible result was a depleted treasury.” Seton personally suggested smothering the beasts in their dens with fumes of bisulphide of carbon. Since then, calcium-cyanide and methyl-bromide gases have also been tried. Calcium cyanide is particularly effective but expensive and must be handled carefully since it is deadly to humans.
In 1907, heeding the demands of settlers, Alberta passed a local improvement act authorizing districts to spend a sum “not exceeding four hundred dollars a year” to purchase and spread poison or pay bounties. Soon after that the great AlbertaSaskatchewan gopher hunt was on. Municipalities offered one to three cents per gopher tail, which thq hunter had to produce as proof of a kill. Each Saturday, enterprising youngsters cashed in fistsful of gopher tails to finance their weekly movie or ice-cream soda.
Some Saskatchewan districts held contests that ran something like the Stanley Cup play-offs. The leading
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gopher-sluggers in each school won prizes of one, two and three dollars. These winners then vied for the honor of top gopher hunter of the municipality. That idea finally petered out, but the gophers didn’t.
In the dry 1930s the pest flourished and so did the hunt. It was a pastime anyone could afford. Hordes of small boys charged into the fields with bloodcurdling cries and binder-twine snares, steel traps or clubs. Youths who hadn’t enough money to court girls spent their Sunday afternoons in pastures, halfheartedly peppering gophers with .22 rifles. Motorists with murder in their eyes tried to run over gophers galloping down the rutted prairie roads.
Farmers with inventive minds were in their glory. I once heard of a Saskatchewan man who stuffed explosives down gopher holes, detonated them with long fuses and remarked hopefully, as showers of cart h settled around him, "Thai ought to get the little
Other farmers extended rubber hose
from their automobile exhaust pipes into gopher holes to smother the pest. This was effective if the gopher didn’t have an extra back door up his sleeve.
One particularly unsporting tactic was called “drowning out.” One small boy poured a bucket of water into the burrow, which brought the gopher swimming groggily to the surface, whereupon another small boy belabored the quarry with a club.
Municipalities sold gopher poison to farmers at reduced rates. A spoonful of strychnine mixed with oats, wheat or barley, popped inside each burrow, did the trick. The gopher, always a sucker for food, gulped it down like the victim in a dime murder mystery.
Poison is still used effectively and with it the west currently manages to
keep the gopher in check. Several potent poisons are now available, including a complicated dish called Colorado Formula No. 46 which includes oats, strychnine, saccharine, baking soda, salt, water, oil and flour.
Judging by the amount of poison used in Saskatchewan, the gopher menace-—or the farmer’s interest—is waning. In 1948 the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities distributed eighty thousand tins of poison; last year it sent out only eight thousand.
Poisoning will never wipe out the pest because, for every farmer who spreads it, there’s a neighbor who doesn’t bother. 'The gophers in poisonfree fields all raise nine children, each of whom raises nine more.
He’s Hopelessly Stupid
There are other factors in the gopher’s favor too. With the publication of the Brown-Roy survey on gopher diseases, Alberta abandoned the bounty in the 1940s to protect children from danger of infection. A few municipalities in Saskatchewan still offer a onecen t bounty but the campaign has practically fizzled out. In the rural municipality of Shamrock, Sask., southwest of Moose Jaw, only three dollars' worth of gopher tails was turned in in 1953 and none in 1954. Most kids prefer to get rich baby-sitting.
Furthermore, the number of gophers in the west fluctuates from time to time for no discernible reason. Just when the west thinks the problem is licked the fields are full of buck teeth and bulging eyes again. Other prairie creatures, notably the rabbit and partridge, also mysteriously increase and decrease but here zoologists like Dr. William Rowan of the University of Alberta are able to recognize a definite cycle of fluctuation. There appears to be no predictable pattern to the gopher’s comings and goings, which makes the pest that much more difficult to keep in check.
Finally, all the experts agree that prairie farmers are harming their cause by killing off the gopher’s natural enemies: hawks, weasels, badgers and coyotes. Although these creatures raid chicken farms (the coyotes are also carriers of rabies in some areas) they more than atone for their sins by catching gophers. Naturalist Kerry Wood estimates that a single hawk is worth one thousand dollars to a farmer in terms of gophers destroyed. John H. Brown, who is now entomologist for Alberta’s Department of Public Health, says, “Hawks, the greatest single factor in the natural control of gophers, should be protected by law.”
Coyotes, badgers and weasels are expert gopher killers too, if given a chance. Kerry Wood reports that coyotes have mastered the “squeezeplay” technique. One coyote chases the varmint down his front hole and makes a great pretense of digging, growling and puffing. True to form, the gopher falls for the trick, runs to one of his back doors, sticks his head out and utters the gopher equivalent of the Bronx cheer. Just then a second coyote sneaks up and scrags him.
Thus farmers who kill the gopher’s enemies are upsetting the balance of nature and the best man-made gopher campaign will not compensate for it.
Summing up the situation, W. A. Lobay, supervisor of crop protection for the Alberta Department of Agriculture, says, “The gopher has been moving steadily northward as the country opens up for cultivation. The fact that it has spread over a wider region might indicate that it is as great a farm pest now as ten years ago. It is unlikely that the gopher will ever be eradicated.”
This conclusion will neither surprise nor sadden prairie people. They’ve learned to take the gopher for granted, as they do the Wheat Pool elevator. They know he steals food, has fleas and is hopelessly dense and they’ll chase him as fiercely this jubilee year as any other.
But they also know that whatever they do he’ll show up doggedly next spring. The gopher belongs to the prairies. As long as he doesn’t take over completely, they’ll watch for his goggle-eyed stare and the saucy flirt of his tail in the dry grass as eagerly they watch for the first crocus or listen for the sigh of an April wind. They’ll never get rid of him—and the truth is,
! they don’t really want to. ★
Poison gets some gophers, but the rest go on raising nine children every year