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Taking on Gophers

An Internet search for “gophers” will bring up numerous sports reports about teams with gophers as a nickname, and opportunities to purchase the corresponding shirts and hats. It will also bring up results for Minnesota, known as the Gopher State. But in the early 1900s, the gopher was no laughing matter in North Dakota. It was a pest, a serious threat to farmers.


On this date in 1915, the Washburn Leader announced that a representative of the Federal Government would be in Garrison. A graduate of the North Dakota Agricultural College, U.S. Ebner, would offer instruction to farmers on how to rid themselves of gophers. Ebner was going to teach farmers how to use a formula developed by Dr. W.B. Bell, also of the Agricultural College. The poison was deadly to gophers but had to be used with great care.

The plains pocket gopher was named for the pockets in its cheeks. These animals are found throughout the Great Plains from Texas to southern Manitoba. They prefer deep, sandy soil where they can burrow. They build their nests in tunnels that can extend for hundreds of yards. Small piles of soft dirt are evidence that gophers are in residence. They spend as much as 90% of their lives underground. They average nine inches long and weigh from four to seven inches. Their lifespan is about five years. The gopher prefers roots, but also eats stems and leaves. It eats a variety of plants including wheat and oats, and is especially fond of alfalfa. Besides destroying crops, this little animal can damage machinery by chewing on wires, and injuries can occur to farm animals that step in gopher holes.

At one time, gophers were far more numerous than they are today. In an 1890 letter, one farmer described killing 4,000 gophers in just one month.

Although farmers consider gophers as pests, they do provide some benefit. The burrowing process aerates the soil, reduces compaction, and increases water filtration.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Washburn Leader. “Poison Squad to War on Gophers.” Washburn, ND. 23 April 1915. Page 1.

Nature Conservancy. “Plains Pocket Gophers.” https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/journeywithnature/plains-pocket-gophers.xml  Accessed 11 March 2018.

ND Studies. “Habitats of North Dakota.” https://www.ndstudies.gov/sites/default/file/prairie_web_0.pdf   Accessed 11 March 2018

Bismarck Tribune. “What’s in a Name?” 23 June 2013. Bismarck, ND.

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