Counties in Minnesota continue to offer bounties for gophers

Mankato, Minn. (AP) — Elaine Poulson is now accustomed to
counting gopher tails. They’re delivered in plastic bags or cheap
bins, and Poulson counts each one.

In Nicollet County’s Lafayette Township, each pocket gopher nets
$3. The tails themselves end up in Poulson’s garden.

“One time, somebody turned in feet. That was grisly,” she

In 2008, the township collected 436 gophers, and paid $1,308.
Nicollet County reimburses its townships, but only at $1 per tail,
leaving the township to pick up most of the fee.

State laws allowing counties to offer bounties for gophers were
enacted in 1909, and many counties continue to offer the bounty
because, well, it’s just always been done that way.

“It’s probably never been called into question,” said Dennis
McCoy, administrator of Blue Earth County, where the bounties were
set at a recent County Board meeting at $1 per pocket gopher and 50
cents per striped gopher.

“Those aren’t real high-buck items in the county budget,
obviously,” he said. “If we’re looking for savings, we’ll look for
larger items than that.”

Blue Earth County spent $750 on bounties in 2007 and $256.50 in
2008. Nicollet County spent $489 last year.

But McCoy and others hint that if the bounties ever go away, it
would be in a year like this one.

“We are looking under every rock to find ways to reduce our
expenditures. Maybe it’s an item they’re going to visit this year,”
he said.

The gophers targeted by bounties aren’t the same species you see
bounding alongside roads or cheering on the University of
Minnesota’s athletic teams.

These are “pocket” gophers, and they’re responsible for large
mounds of dirt often seen in fields and lawns. They live almost all
of their life underground and their hairless tails and short fur
make them look like moles or large rats.

As Mankato outdoorsman Marty Walgenbach puts it: “Unless you
trap ‘em, you’ve never seen a pocket gopher.”

Striped gophers – actually ground squirrels – are sometimes
caught in the traps, but they don’t dig the holes themselves and
they typically earn only half the bounty of a pocket gopher. Though
the details may vary township to township, striped gophers are
redeemed in Blue Earth County’s Lime Township with their fluffy
tails, while pocket gopher bounties are collected with a pair of
their large, clawed front legs.

Walgenbach said pocket gophers are so named for the pouches
alongside their mouths that they use to store grass.

There have been 109 striped gophers redeemed for bounty in Blue
Earth County over the past two years, compared to 667 pocket

Adam Miller, 22, began setting pocket gopher traps when he was
13 or so. After a season of stalking around in fields alongside his
brother and stepfather, they’d collect the feet in a butter dish or
an ice cream pail and set off for the township building.

After splitting the catch three ways, Adam would end up with
maybe $150, but he wouldn’t rush off to buy a video game or go to
the movies.

“I was a saver,” he said. “It went to the bank.”

Once he caught a weasel in a trap, and his stepfather had its
hide tanned. Another time, he watched a snowy owl descend on a
gopher’s body.

Now he traps gopher less often, but is the go-to guy when a
family acquaintance spots mounds popping up on their lawns.

Walgenbach traps gophers on a neighbor’s horse pasture in
exchange for permission to hunt for deer there. The burrows can be
dangerous to horses that might accidentally injure a leg stepping
in them.

Gopher hunting with traps is pretty simple as Walgenbach, 30,
explains it.

He finds a mound of dirt, then uses a 2-foot-long piece of metal
to find the tunnel. Then he clears away the dirt and places a trap
with a name like a heavy metal band – it’s called a “death clutch”
– into the hole.

No bait is necessary, because the pocket gophers don’t like
light, and crawl up in an attempt to close the hole, he said.
They’re killed by the trap, and Walgenbach cuts the front legs off
and puts them in a box affixed to his four-wheeled ATV.

He’s caught more than 300 during the past few years.

Gopher trapping probably traces back to the initial efforts to
farm here, said Lyle Femrite, a supervisor at Decoria Township.

Their holes and mounds were a problem for farmers, especially
those raising a hay crop because the dirt interfered with the
harvest. Bounties were enacted to create an incentive to remove

The gophers have become less of a nuisance as farming practices
changed. Corn and soybeans are less vulnerable to the pests, but
they have been known to dig kernels of corn out of the ground after
planting, Femrite said.

The rodents can still cause problems to a hay crop and their
holes can pose a danger to horses.

Others just don’t like the look of mounds on their manicured
lawns. But even if killing one gopher puts an end to its own
burrowing, the practice of trapping isn’t likely to make a huge
impact on their numbers.

Tom Conroy, with the southern region of the Department of
Natural Resources, says, “Our experience has been that bounties
typically don’t work.”

First, “nature abhors a vacuum,” meaning gophers will repopulate
habitats even if they’re consistently killed.

Bounties are also typically difficult to manage; it’s usually
impossible to prove that the animal was harvested in the
jurisdiction offering the bounty.

And as with any organism, “they all play a role, they’re all
connected,” so a reduction in the gopher population is bound to
have unintended side effects.

“You just wonder what the motivations for providing bounties
are, when you look at the facts: (they’re) a temporary stopgap
measure with no long-term results,” Conroy said.

Still, the gopher hunters see it differently.

For Walgenbach, it’s an excuse to tool around on his ATV.

For Dennis Leiferman of Mankato, it can be a good way for kids
to make some extra spending money.

“I really don’t see why more people don’t do it,” he said. “Once
you get the knack of it, it’s easy to do.”

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