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February 9: Poisoning Farm Pests

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North Dakota farmers always had plenty of problems to worry about, like wind, drought, hail, debt, floods, infestations, and blight. Another small enemy lurking near farmer’s fields were the varmints – including ground-squirrels, prairie dogs, and pocket gophers.

Particularly troublesome were three types of ground squirrel – the thirteen-lined striped ones; the Franklin variety; and the Richardson, also known as a ‘flickertail.’ These ground-squirrels, commonly called ‘gophers,’ destroyed grain by gnawing off green stalks at the root. A colony of gophers, with their “sharp teeth and claws,” could leave a field strewn with worthless yellowing stalks.

Farmers sought to exterminate gophers with trapping, shooting, and poisoning. However, a gopher was often “too wary to be trapped;” too agile to be ‘done in’ by “the shotgun or the tomcat;” and “too wise to eat poisoned grain.” And the wily gophers dug back-doors to their tunnels so they could not easily be drowned-out or smoked to death. Therefore, farmers petitioned the government for help.

Consequently, an 1895 law set up a system for counties to levy a tax to supply “strychnine or other poison” for the “destruction of gophers.” A 1913 law went further, stating that when as few as ten farmers in a township petitioned their county commissioners for help getting rid of pests, the authorities would pay a professional to “poison, kill and exterminate the gophers” in that township.

On this date in 1915, a newspaper article explained a method of poisoning gophers developed by the North Dakota Experiment Station. The main ingredients were oats and strychnine, with trace elements mixed in. It was fairly inexpensive to produce and it worked well because gophers loved to eat oats.

Other pests also arose. In the 1930s, grasshopper plagues arrived and the government used poisoned-bran to kill them, too. For decades thereafter, poison was used to give farmers relief from various depredations. In 1960, the state legislature authorized poison for the eradication of “Gophers, Rabbits, and Crows.” Additionally, coyotes were poisoned to reduce losses in cattle-herds.

The use of poisons could not continue forever, as the wider-public raised environmental and health concerns. And so, state-authorized poisonings eventually became a thing of the past. The poisons were just too dangerous to be widely used.

Dakota Datebook by Steve Hoffbeck, retired MSUM History Professor


  • “To Eliminate Farm Pests,” Bismarck Tribune, February 9, 1915, p. 5.
  • Linda W. Slaughter, “The Gopher Bill,” Bismarck Weekly Tribune, January 3, 1890, p. 9.
  • “Gopher,” Session Laws, 1895 Regular Session, p. 99,
  • “Eradication of Gophers, Rabbits, and Crows,” N.D. Century Code, Chapter 4-16, 1960, later repealed.
  • “Coyote Poisoning Under Way in N.D., Bismarck Tribune, December 3, 1954, p. 10.
  • Don Kendall, “Coyote Problem Is Butz Concern,” Bismarck Tribune, January 24, 1973, p. 3.
  • Wayne J. Colberg and Rew V. Hanson, N.D. State University, Extension Service, Control of Ground Squirrels, Prairie Dogs, Field Mice, Pocket Gophers, Circular A243, May 1966.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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