SCOTT RALL COLUMN: Outsmarted by a brain the size of a pea
WORTHINGTON -- It was a few years back on one of the coldest days that North Dakota had ever seen since the ice age that I pulled into a gas station in Ellendale, N.D. There was a guy gassing up his truck with Eskimo mittens on and he had on an orange cap so I assumed he was pheasant hunting.
I asked if he had any luck earlier that morning and he said no. He went on to say he was so frustrated he had been totally outsmarted by more than 1,000 pheasants that had a brain the size of a pea and were only six months old. All I could do was chuckle.
Pheasants hatch in June, hence the six-months-old comment and they do have a small brain, but if you are going to survive in the wild you have to get pretty smart pretty fast.
I had another one of those outsmarted-by-a-brain-the-size-of-a-pea feelings the other day. I have an area of grass on a property I manage for habitat that was mostly pigeon grass and smooth brome. This is OK nesting habitat, but it has little value to wildlife when the snow flies. This makes it poor grass for pheasants in the winter. It is about a half-acre in size.
There are an undetermined number of pocket gophers that have lived on this site for decades. It was so rough I could hardly drive my Polaris Ranger through the area without loosening my molars.
Pocket gophers do well in shorter, non-native grass species. They dig tunnels under the ground and eat the roots of grasses and other vegetation. The root structures of most cool season, non-native grasses are about 14 inches deep.
In the area of this property where native grasses have been established there are no pocket gophers. Native grass species can have root structures almost 15 feet deep. I think native grasses and their root systems are so robust the pocket gophers cannot keep up and either die out or move on.
I started my habitat restoration efforts by mowing the spot -- really tough considering how many pocket gopher mounds there were. After it was mowed I let it green up and then applied Round-Up to kill all of the growing grasses. About three weeks later I did it again; and when it was all dried up I did a burn. The other native grasses that ringed the area were all green and at their growing peak so there was no way for the fire to get away.
After the fire, my big buddy Les Johnson ran over the spot with a tractor mounted roto-tiller. This broke up the sod and started getting it into a condition that could be planted. After the roto-tilling, I ran over it with a 50-year-old drag section about a dozen times and all that was left to do was pick up the rocks. I do this so that if it ever needs to be mowed in the future, the equipment doesn't get thrashed.
I had a nice smooth spot and it only took a few days for the pocket gophers to start doing what pocket gophers do. A new mound here and another over there started to appear within a few days. I acquired a bucket of pocket gopher traps and did what any novice trapper would do -- probe the mound with a small steel rod until you locate the hollow spot indicating where the tunnel underground is located. After you locate the tunnel you clear out the opening and set a trap down in the hole about 12 inches in.
When the gopher comes too close to the opening to keep out the predators, they are supposed to get caught in the trap. This is unless you are me. I set the trap and they would push it full of dirt and spring the trap before they could get caught. This happened over and over. I even had more experienced gopher trappers take a shot at it and their luck was the same. I had some college graduate pocket gophers in this spot.
A few little gophers with a brain the size of a pea were teaching me a lesson in humility. Each time I would distribute the dirt mound, set the trap and end up with the same non-successful result. It made me really glad my name was not Grizzley Adams, trying to live off the land.
Why we could not succeed in the normal manner is still a mystery. I had to opt for a more modern approach. There are mole and gopher pellets that you can deposit down the hole and then cover the hole with a portion of cardboard and then cover with dirt so no light gets in. This is not much different than mice or rat pellets. After having done this, there was only one new mound and a few days later that one was gone as well. I could only use this method because the pellets were underground where no dogs or other non-target animals could come in contact with it.
I planted this area a week later to winter wheat and it is not doing so well, as we haven't seemed to have had an inch of rain the past three months.
This planting is designed to mellow the soil and reduce weed competition so that when I plant the area to a mixture of different native grasses next fall it will be better suited as wildlife habitat. The seed bed will be just right.
I will probably never be done with pocket gophers, which will no doubt be piling up dirt mounds long after I am dead and gone, but I will continue to try to hone my trapping skills so as not to be continually outsmarted by an animal with a brain the size of a pea.
Scott Rall is the Daily Globe's outdoors columnist. His column can also be read weekly at www.dglobe.com.