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A Rite of Spring

North Dakotans anxiously await signs of spring after a long winter. The snow melts. Days grow longer. But one sign of spring that is not appreciated is the emergence of pests that have been dormant under the snow. One of the more common of these pests is the pocket gopher. The Grand Forks Herald noted that “battling pocket gophers is a rite of spring.” The Yankton Press and Dakotan says that “Pocket gophers send shivers up and down the spines of landowners.”

On this date in 1912, Burleigh County lawmakers announced a program to address the gopher problem – a bounty of one cent for each gopher killed. Intrepid gopher hunters were instructed to bring gopher tails to their local township clerks. The clerks would fill out the necessary paperwork and pay the bounty.

The pocket gopher gets its name from the fur-lined pouch on each side of its mouth. These pouches are used to carry food. They are very common throughout North Dakota and neighboring states. But it’s likely that the bounty also included ground squirrels, with no distinction being made for the difference. Either one can destroy crops in several ways. They sometimes uproot plants and pull them into their tunnels. They also feed on the plants above ground, and even forage on the roots below ground.

These pests are especially fond of alfalfa. They like to live near gardens where they can dig tunnels and have access to root vegetables like carrots. Farmers and gardeners can spot the presence of gophers by the mounds of dirt at the tunnel openings.

Since they range from five inches to fourteen inches long, they are considered a small rodent. But for a small animal, they can do a great deal of damage, and not only to crops. They can also destroy underground utility cables and irrigation pipes.

Burleigh County’s solution to the problem was not unique. Many counties across the Great Plains offered a gopher bounty, and many still do. In 1912 Burleigh County insisted that the bounty would be paid only on gophers killed in that county, but the Commissioners did not say just how they would determine where the gopher tails came from!

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Grand Forks Herald. “Battling Pocket Gophers is a Rite of Spring.” https://www.grandforksherald.com/sports/outdoors/2072224-battling-pocket-gophers-rite-spring   Accessed 3/2/20 19.

Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, Cornell University. “Pocket Gophers.” http://icwdm.org/handbook/rodents/pocketgophers.asp     Accessed 3/2/2019.

Yankton Press and Dakotan. “Pocket gophers send shivers up and down the spines of landowners.” https://www.yankton.net/neighbors/article_5adb90ef-e888-5dfc-9778-4113885c3c94.html    Accessed 3/2/2019.

PBS. “Why Minnesota is the Gopher State.” https://www.pbs.org/video/roy-finden-essay-why-is-minnesota-the-gopher-state-30951/   Accessed 3/2/2019.

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