On our evening walk with our dog CoBe, my wife, Trish, and I noticed a marked increase in pocket gopher mounds on the fields and lawns of Los Osos. And it’s no wonder – a gopher can bring about 2 1/4 tons of soil to the surface each year. They are named for their cheek pouches, or pouches, for carrying plant food while burrowing underground.
I thought of the eclectic gardener Carl Spackler, played by Bill Murray at the Indian Hill Club in the movie “Caddyshack”. I loved the battle of wits between Spackler and this gopher. Many of us feel the same when they appear in our gardens or lawns.
To find out if we’re in the midst of a pocket gopher population explosion, I decided to ask Bob Blanchard.
For decades, Terri and Bob Blanchard raised cattle on Pecho Ranch, the land between Montaña de Oro State Park and the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, and Old Creek Ranch near Cayucos. They’ve dealt with all manner of creatures, from rattlesnakes to badgers.
In 1992 they started a rotational grazing program at Pecho Ranch. The approximately 3,000 acre ranch is divided into 25 pastures or paddocks. The herd grazes a field for several days, followed by a rest period of 45 to 60 days or more. “It’s about mimicking the beneficial effects of migratory herds as our grasslands evolve while eliminating or at least minimizing the negative impacts associated with continuous grazing,” the Blanchards told me.
This type of farming allows prey animals to thrive, which provides food for predators, reducing the pressure on their herds. Yet the land has become more productive with deeper topsoil and more grass.
Bob told me that the deeper topsoil allowed the ground squirrels to thrive due to less soil compaction. In other words, it takes less energy to dig their tunnels. “Gophers will dig different tunnels for food storage, bathing, nesting and escape,” he said. Even if he doesn’t like them near his home, he likes them at the Pecho Ranch.
They move massive amounts of soil every year and therefore aerate the soil. They also provide food for great blue herons, owls and raptors such as hawks and eagles, coyotes, badgers, bobcats and snakes. Overall, they are beneficial components of coastal terrace ecosystems.
He went on to say that, like many other rodents and small mammals like rabbits, their population goes through cycles. Like other rodents, they only live an average of about three years. For unclear reasons, we are seeing more ground squirrels than usual this year.
Here are some fun facts about pocket waffles from the Havahart website:
- Gophers often back up when traveling through their tunnels, using their 4-inch tails for navigation.
- Although ground squirrels have poor hearing and eyesight, they have a highly developed sense of touch on which they rely heavily for survival. Abundant whiskers and a sensitive tail help ground squirrels sense their surroundings at all times.
- Gophers turn their cheek pouches inside out to clean them.
That said, the Blanchards’ sustainable practices have been emulated by ranchers across the United States. In fact, Cal Poly silviculture and vegetation management courses visit Pecho Ranch, operated by PG&E’s Diablo Canyon land stewardship program, to learn land sustainability techniques.
At first, they were skeptical about the effectiveness of this type of program, as they were “old school” farmers, but they are now convinced; their ranches are now all organic – from the chickens that roam free under their avocado and citrus orchards at Old Cheek Ranch to the cattle they raise at Pecho Ranch.
Those who have hiked the Point Buchon Trail that winds through this beautiful ranch will tell you that the Blanchards’ program was a resounding success, especially those who love California golden poppies.