University of Illinois Extension

Wildlife Directory

Pocket Gopher (bursarius)

Geomys
Pocket Gopher photo
Plains pocket gopher (Geomys bursarius). Photo courtesy of Paul Nesbit.

Did You Know?

  • The plains pocket gopher is the only species of gopher found in Illinois.
  • Pocket gophers eat approximately half their weight in food daily.

Description and Identification

Plains pocket gophers belong to the Geomyidae family. They are approximately 8 ½ to 12 ¾ inches in length, including the tail. Adults can weigh up to 1 pound; males are generally larger than females. Plains pocket gophers are larger than eastern moles. They have a stocky body, small eyes and ears, and a sparsely furred tail. The front claws are long and strongly curved, while the back claws are short. Plains pocket gophers have external cheek pouches that are used to transport food and nesting materials. They typically have black or dark brown fur with dark gray or brownish-colored undersides. The fur is soft, short, and dense. The tops of their feet and the end of the tail are white.

Signs

Plains pocket gophers spend most of their lives underground. Tracks and scat are seldom found. The best indicators of their presence in an area are the kidney- or fan-shaped mounds of soil that they produce. These mounds are often 1 to 2 feet in diameter and may be up to 1 foot tall. Unlike molehills, pocket gopher mounds are not connected by surface tunnels, though the mounds are usually found in a line.

Habitat

Plains pocket gophers need well-drained soils since they spend much of their lives in underground burrows. The burrows may be dug under roadsides, old fields, hayfields, cemeteries, golf courses or lawns. Their burrow systems may be up to 500 feet long, and are usually within 3 feet of the ground’s surface.

Distribution and Abundance

Plains pocket gophers are found throughout much of the mid-section of Illinois. Their range extends from St. Clair and Madison counties to east and south of the Illinois River over to the Kankakee River and south of that river to the border of Indiana. They can be locally abundant.

Reproduction

Breeding takes place in January through spring. Plains pocket gophers have one litter each year with an average of 3 to 4 young per litter. The young gophers are cared for by the female only and are weaned by 5 to 6 weeks of age. After a few more weeks the young disperse to dig their own burrow systems.

Food

Plains pocket gophers are classified as herbivores. They feed mainly on roots, rhizomes, and bulbs. They are also known to consume roots of shrubs and small trees and the leaves of plants such as alfalfa, clover, sweet clover, bluegrass, dandelion, dock, and plantain.

Behavior

Photo courtesy of Michael Jeffords, Illinois Natural History Survey.

Plains pocket gophers are solitary animals and will aggressively defend their burrow from other pocket gophers. They spend almost all of their time in their underground burrows. When excavating a burrow system, a pocket gopher can produce up to three mounds of soil a day.

Damage Prevention and Control Measures

The tunneling and mound-producing behavior of pocket gophers can damage lawns. The mounds of soil may be considered unsightly in a manicured landscape.

Before beginning a control plan it is important to make sure that pocket gophers are causing the tunneling and mounds of soil. The eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus) also occurs in Illinois and lives a subterranean life similar to the pocket gopher. Moles excavate circular, volcano-shaped mounds of soil. The mound of soil is typically 4 to 8 inches high but may extend up to 2 feet. The pocket gopher builds kidney-shaped mounds.

Habitat modification

Pocket gophers are attracted to areas with a good supply of food in loamy or sandy soils. Therefore, in a healthy environment it is extremely difficult to get rid of pocket gophers. Packing the soil with a lawn roller may make the area less attractive to pocket gophers but this technique can hinder turf growth.

Exclusion

It is possible to exclude pocket gophers from small areas by using a barrier made of hardware cloth. The wire must be buried at least 18 inches deep.

  • Dig a trench at least 18 inches deep by 12 inches wide.
  • Using a piece of 24 inch wire, bend the wire at a 90 degree angle and place it in the trench with the lower piece facing out from the area to be protected.
  • Replace the soil, making sure that the wire is flush with the ground and is completely covered.
Repellents

There no registered repellents for pocket gopher control in Illinois.

Frightening Devices

Frightening devices, such as ultrasonic emitters, have not proven to be effective.

Toxicants

Grain baits treated with strychnine alkaloid (0.25 to 0.5% active ingredient) or zinc phosphide are sometimes used. These products are registered as Restricted Use Pesticides and only licensed pesticide applicators may use the product. Baits should be placed in the burrow to reduce the likelihood of killing non-target species.

Fumigants

Fumigants are typically ineffective and are not recommended for pocket gopher control.

Removal

Trapping is the recommended control method for pocket gophers. There are several products designed specifically for trapping gophers. A permit is not needed to trap pocket gophers. Following trap instructions will increase the success of this control method. For a detailed guide to trapping pocket gophers see: http://icwdm.org/handbook/rodents/PocketGophers.asp.

Keep in mind that removing one or more pocket gophers will open up the area to invasion from other pocket gophers. If the soil conditions are good and there is a food supply, pocket gophers will continue to use the area.

Public Health Concerns

Pocket gophers pose no public health concerns.

Ecological Role

While pocket gopher mounds may be considered unsightly, they are evidence of a healthy ecosystem. Where possible, pocket gopher activity should be allowed. Their tunneling behavior increases soil fertility and aeration and decreases soil compaction.

Legal Status

Pocket gophers are not protected by the Illinois Wildlife Code. A permit is not needed to remove them.