by Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist
for University of Illinois Extension in Coles County.
The common woodchuck in Illinois is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he is a celebrity in February as he uses his shadow to forecast the coming of Spring. Then a few weeks later he's a villain as he makes a meal of our carefully planted garden vegetables, or dares to excavate an elaborate burrow system in our well-manicured yard.
Even when faced with potential conflicts with these likable creatures, there are steps we can take to minimize the pain and suffering for humans and rodents alike. Sometimes there's no way around it -- they simply must be evicted. But before we take that drastic step, there may be things we can do instead that might help us all to live in peace. A good start may be to address the factors that caused the problems in the first place.
Habitat modification. Making our yards less attractive to the woodchucks may help to convince them to seek a more suitable home elsewhere. Removing old stumps, brush piles, and wood piles, and keeping vegetation height to a minimum may help to discourage them from setting up housekeeping. These animals like to forage near tall grasses, weeds, and other cover, and reducing the availability of these may force them to increase their alertness and feed elsewhere, thus rendering the area less desirable over the long term. And keeping undergrowth and grass cover low can deny them the security they seek, so they may feel vulnerable and decide that burrowing around our buildings and residences is not such a good idea.
Scare techniques and harassment. The types of frightening devices that are often effective with deer, birds, and other animals are typically not successful with woodchucks. Perhaps it's because woodchucks, who must accumulate fat all summer long in order to survive winter hibernation, cannot afford to be too easily distracted from feeding. Applying aversive stimuli that may mimic predator activity can sometimes be an effective measure in convincing persistent woodchucks to move to greener pastures. Disturbing them frequently during their active season (from February through October in our area) can be an effective deterrent. This can be accomplished by walking near their burrows fairly often at peak foraging times -- generally sunrise to 10 AM and 4 PM to sunset. When done in combination with other scare techniques in maintaining a moderate level of disturbance, this may help make an area treasured by us become undesirable to them.
Walking a leashed dog through the area on a regular basis is likely to evoke a stronger "predator" response from the creatures, as will partially digging out all burrow entrances with a trowel, clearing away any surrounding vegetation, and placing used (soiled or urine-soaked) cat litter just inside them (the clumping kind works best). One application per burrow may do the trick, but two or three applications may be necessary to achieve the desired result. Loosely seal the entrance so that the smell lingers inside the burrow. The strong odor often compels them to vacate the premises and look elsewhere for a more "agreeable" home.
Because woodchucks are cautious animals by nature, they can sometimes be frightened by objects in their environment. Some scare techniques involve tying silver Mylar balloons (from a local party store) in the yard or garden on a short line so that they sometimes bounce with the wind onto the ground. One can also use reflective Mylar tape, or suspend a beach ball in place where it will catch a breeze and float around. These scare devices may work temporarily, but are more likely to be effective if they are moved around or changed frequently.
Repellants and lures. Woodchucks may be repelled by applying hot pepper spray, dried blood, predator urine, or talcum powder on plants we want to protect to discourage them from feeding. They can also be lured away from nibbling on our favorite garden vegetables by planting favored foods such as alfalfa and clover in another area just for them. Since their main goal in summer is to eat as much as possible to store enough fat for hibernation through the winter, this may be enough to convince them not to waste time and energy on foods that suddenly don't taste good.
Exclusion. About the only way to keep woodchucks away for sure is to fence them out. Since they are able to climb as well as burrow, any fence used must by at least 4 feet tall with the bottom buried 10-12 inches below the ground or bent outward in an L-shape for 6-12 inches about 1-2 inches below ground. When secured with landscape staples, this will help discourage digging. The top should be loosely wired to fence posts, as a groundhog does not like to climb unstable fences. If it wobbles when he tries to climb, he'll become discouraged and stop trying. It's best to use hardware cloth rather than chicken wire as the latter will rust and weaken quickly. A one-wire, 4-inch electric fence in front of the wire fence can increase the effectiveness also. For larger areas, a simple 2-strand electric fence (placed 1-4 inches and also 8-9 inches above ground) will often succeed in keeping them out.
Removal. Despite out best efforts, sometimes an animal causes substantial property damage or is a public health or safety concern. In Illinois, woodchucks are protected as a game animal. They may be hunted or trapped, but a license from the IL Dept. of Natural Resources is required. To remove a woodchuck from our private property requires that we obtain an animal removal permit from an IL Dept. of Natural Resources District Wildlife Biologist. We may also contact a nuisance wildlife control operator to trap and remove the woodchuck for a fee. If an animal is removed, be prepared for another woodchuck to move in to the vacated burrow eventually. For this reason, exclusion is a much better method than removal to control conflicts with humans.
Before we do anything to discourage a woodchuck from inhabiting our property, we must decide whether or not we can tolerate its presence. It is important to remember that woodchucks play an important ecological role in nature. They provide natural prey for several species of predators, and their excavating skills help to aerate and mix the soil. Their foraging and digging activities also help to shape the plant communities in their environment. Their abandoned burrows provide ready shelter for a number of other wildlife species including rabbits, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, and weasels. So is the woodchuck a celebrity or a villain? I say neither -- he's an everyday, ordinary hard worker just doing his job.