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Margaret Lauterbach: Voles, gophers and squirrels are on the move

If you feel the earth moving beneath your feet, it could be the pitter patter of voles (Oregon meadow mice), having enjoyed the mild winter by having an extra litter of offspring. Gophers and ground squirrels too are thriving, according to Idaho Gopher Control.

Matt Brechwald, owner of Idaho Gopher Control in Kuna, said he hasn’t seen this much activity from ground squirrels, voles and gophers in years. In some areas ground squirrels have chewed alfalfa to the ground, and in some places it looks like the ground is moving because of their activity. Voles are smaller, but in large numbers have been known to demolish large haystacks.

For the past several years, I’ve had terriers as pets controlling voles, but now I’m seeing several new vole holes under my garden toolsheds. Is the terrier failing at his job? My terrier, Mickey, is acting overstuffed, and I hope he’s not eating his kill like our last cairn terrier did. We want him on a better diet than that. Kill and release. We’ll dispose.

There’s a large weedy lot near my garden, from which gophers and voles have moved into our yard. I think Mickey or my other dog killed the gopher that wiped out my Jerusalem artichoke patch two years ago. I smelled rotten kill near an area inaccessible to me, and saw no further depredation.

In the past (before terriers) we controlled gophers by trapping. It’s not easy to trap or poison them without harming pets. Gophers are fond of burying traps. Brechwald says immature gophers have been leaving their nests over the past three months. Mature gophers leave a large pile of soil on the surface, but immature ones leave flat circles of surface dirt, harder to detect than dirt mounds.

Sam Holt, of Ada County Weed and Pest Control, verified that the young gophers are emerging early from their burrows. His department works only outside city limits, controlling gophers and rock chucks (yellow-bellied marmots).

Fumigating gopher tunnels in May should control some immature and parent gophers, but if we wait until all emerge for good it will be more difficult to control them. Ground squirrels will soon begin estivating (summer dormancy), walling themselves off from the world with soil barriers, until they emerge in fall or next spring with new offspring. They’re tough to find during this “hibernation,” much less control.

One way to trap some rodents is to construct a wooden box with a removable lid, and a proper-sized hole cut in the side. By proper, you’d need a hole about 2 by 3 inches for voles, larger for gophers. Inside the box you can install traps such as the standard old snap traps, sequestered from pet injury. The trap “house” must be tall enough to allow the spring to properly snap. Some bait the traps, but some do not. We can hope voles, rather than toads, take refuge in the trap “house.”

Voles are a little larger than mice, but unlike rats, have short tails. They don’t move as fast as mice. The old-fashioned Victor wooden snap traps work fine on voles, but could harm pets unless concealed in a trap house.

Another rodent is causing problems in the city, too. I’ve had more plant damage from squirrels this year than ever before. I don’t know whether they’ve had extra litters, but I hope not. Gestation is 44 days for western gray squirrels; I presume that’s our usual variety.

They move in on everything tasty to themselves, depriving humans of the food we planted and intended to harvest. Two little boys in Boise are the only ones I know of who are getting the best of squirrels. They’re eating immature almonds from their dad’s tree before the squirrels take them all.

To paraphrase the words from the “Most Happy Fella” musical, this summer Boiseans may be “standing on a corner watching all the squirrels go by” with full cheeks and tummies.

Send garden questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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