Gophers are smarter and more interesting than we think

Hello Flatlanders,

Before I get into this week’s topic, I thought I would remind you that I am currently doing an audience survey that, if you have a few extra minutes, I’d appreciate it if you could fill it out.

It not only helps me get to know you as readers, but it will also assist me in drafting the mission and values of The Flatlander and plan the future growth of this journalism initiative. In the next month or two, I am hoping to launch a more traditional news website, in addition to this newsletter, and your input lets me know how to plan what content is important to you.


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When I stared out in journalism 20 years ago, we were never really taught to engage with our audience or ask what people are interested in or what they need to know. But I think it’s important for journalists to check in with readers. I love hearing from people and do put a lot of thought into what readers tell me, which is part of the reason I’m usually weeks behind in responding to my messages; but I do always, eventually, reply.
 
What I’ve learned so far is that those of you who read this newsletter are, not surprisingly, quite diverse. There are trades people, doctors, farmers, professors, retirees, engineers, pilots, social workers, and teachers who read The Flatlander. Some readers are Conservative, and some are diehard NDP supporters. (The Liberals seem to have a hard time gaining any traction in Manitoba, and especially in Saskatchewan). Some of you have lived on the Prairies your whole life; some of you have moved away and want to stay connected to the place you call home. While others are new here, having moved to the Prairies from out East. Some live in the cities; others are townies or live on farms, while others, like me, live up North in the boreal forest part of the Prairie provinces. But despite our differences, there seems to be a need to have more of our stories told. We are curious about our history and what is happening in our own backyard.
 
So, on that note, I thought I would devote this week’s issue to a tiny creature, we see all the time in the summer—the gopher.


I find it’s a right of passage for us living on the Prairies that some know-it-all will eventually come into our life and tell us the animal we’ve always called a gopher is actually a Richardson ground squirrel. And, once we find that out, we continue to call these creatures gophers anyway.
 
Why do we call Richardson ground squirrels gophers?
 
The word gopher derives from the French gaufre, which refers to a bunch of holes in a honeycombed shape. I guess one could argue that the burrowing system gophers live in look honeycombed if you could see the tunnels and chambers from above.
 
There really isn’t an animal called a gopher; although there are pocket gophers and there are a lot of different kinds of pocket gophers. They are not a part of the squirrel family at all.
 
There are, however, other ground squirrels on the Prairies that aren’t Richardson ground squirrels that we might also call gophers and not really think too hard about the differences between these unique types of animals—like the thirteen-lined ground squirrel or the black-tailed prairie dog, which are both part of the squirrel family.
 
There are 21 species of ground squirrels found in North America. 
 
The Richardson ground squirrel is named after John Richardson, a naturalist who explored along the Saskatchewan River and collected rodent species way back in 1820.
 
Gophers on the Manitoban “outback”
 
I never thought about gophers much until I was a volunteer at the Assiniboine Park Zoo while living in Winnipeg. There was an exhibit called the Australian Walkabout where people could have an up-close look at red kangaroos and emus.
 
Living amongst these exotic animals were Richardson ground squirrels with black numbers painted on their backs to identify them to the biologists who were studying them. (There are no Richardson ground squirrels in Australia, FYI).
 
While working at the zoo, I attended a talk by one of those biologists, Dr. James Hare, who is now a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, who has spent years studying ground squirrels.
 
While listening to Dr. Hare, I was blown away by how fascinating Richardson ground squirrels are. Like most people living on the Prairies, I had grown up taking them for granted.
 
Did you know Richardson ground squirrels have their own vocabulary?
 
A certain chirp warns other Richardson ground squirrels a bird of prey is nearby; and there’s a whistle to warn of a predator on the ground—like a weasel or badger.
 
“They are great little beasts,” Dr. Hare wrote to me in a recent email after I reached out to him to clarify a few points from his talk all those years ago.
 
Richardson ground squirrels spend a good part of the year underground—adult males spend eight to nine months of the year hibernating. They basically only surface to mate and eat enough to fatten themselves up for the next winter.
 
Adult males awake from hibernation in February or March and will start eating underground from a cache of food they stored away from the previous summer to help them fatten up a bit before coming above ground. Once top side, they establish territories over an area where several females are still in hibernation.


Gopher wars
 
A few weeks later, females emerge, and the males viciously fight each other for a chance to mate. Researcher photos show blood-stained males missing an ear or even a limb.
 
“All males ultimately end up with severe injuries by the end of the breeding season,” Dr. Hare said in his email. “I have been amazed at how they seem resistant to infection and will often recover from even the grizzliest of injuries.”
 
I’d like to think this is why the Saskatchewan Roughriders picked Gainer the Gopher to be their mascot. Male Richardson ground squirrels are brutal, but the Roughriders have yet to capitalize on this as Gainer’s backstory is much tamer.
 
Mating season for gophers, which can last three to five weeks, can be a dangerous time for male Richardson ground squirrels as they can sometimes be more interested in a female than an approaching predator. Not to mention that male Richardson ground squirrels can kill each other while fighting over a female.
 
Once mating is over, the males that have survived go back into hibernation by June or early July.
 
Female gophers are independent
 
Adult females raise their pups (squirrel babies are referred to as kits) on their own and will be ready to head back into hibernation by July or early August. They can’t start fattening themselves up again until after they wean their kits.
 
Any Richardson ground squirrel you see above ground in late August and into the fall are juveniles.
 
Dr. Hare says this is because the kits need to forage enough food to fatten up so they can survive hibernation and be strong enough in the spring to mate.
 
Juvenile females will enter hibernation in late August or early September, while male juveniles can be above ground until October. Young males need the extra time to get big enough to be able to take on the more experienced adult males in fights the following spring.
 
How gophers live underground
 
Females live on their own. In the summer, the females will spend time between two borrow systems—kind of like how some people have a house and a cabin.
 
These burrows can be a metre deep and can be accessed by five or 10 different gopher holes.
 
Elaborate homes. Inside the burrow system there can be three to five grass-lined sleeping chambers, like bedrooms, and there is a dedicated area where they go to the bathroom.
 
A hibernation chamber is built off the main burrow system. The squirrel severs off its connections to the main burrow system while preparing for hibernation. The chamber will only have a single entrance that is divided into two, a drain tunnel to carry away water and an exit tunnel that almost reaches the surface. In the spring, squirrels must dig themselves out.
 
Family groups. Females tend to neighbour their female relatives, which they maintain a social relationship with. A female’s home range can cover a 20 to 40 metre area.
 
“Lone wolves.” Male ground squirrels tend to live in unoccupied burrow systems; and don’t maintain any relationships with their kin.
 
Juvenile females are sedentary and will take up a section of their mother’s home for her own use.
 
Juvenile males will move to another area further away, which prevents inbreeding the following year. Because these males must travel through unknown areas filled with unfamiliar dangers to find their new homes, not all of them make it. Dr. Hare said some males can travel as far as 20 kilometres, although most journeys are much shorter.
 
Only about five to 15 per cent of young males survive to adulthood, whereas about 35 to 45 per cent of juvenile females survive to the next summer.
 
Females often live for three or four years; whereas males are lucky if they make it to the age of three, given their violent and distracted mating tendencies.


“A badger doing his thing, digging out gopher holes to catch gophers. Seldom seen however is a badger transporting his prey back to his den.”

Gophers as pests
 
These mammals, although cute enough that some people keep them as pets, are pests for farmers and those maintaining parks or sports fields. (While playing baseball in Grade 7 gym class, I hit my one and only home run and tripped over a gopher hole on the way to the home plate, ruining my victory).    
 
Gophers can improve cattle grazing areas
 
The negative impact Richardson ground squirrels have on crops is anecdotal as there hasn’t been a lot of research into this area.
 
“Coexistence should be encouraged where possible,” said Dr. Hare, who sent me a copy of a paper he published with his former student Levi Newediuk and collaborator Isobel Waters, about the research they conducted on a farming property in Westbourne, Manitoba, which showed that Richardson’s ground squirrel foraging improves the diversity and quality of prairie grassland plants that cattle graze upon.
 
How to humanely control gopher populations
 
“It’s hard for me to put humane and exterminate together in the same sentence,” Dr. Hare wrote in his email to me. “That said, even I would begrudgingly admit that there are certain land uses where it is not safe to have the landscape riddled with ground squirrel burrows, where concerns over crop damage take precedence to conservation of this wildlife species, or where burrowing and further excavation of burrow systems by ground squirrel predators like badgers can cause damage to farm implements.”
 
The no kill way
 
He says the ideal way to exercise control is to prevent overgrazing and rotate land use on a multi-year basis to allow tall growing plants to spread across what was grazing land.
 
Ground squirrels don’t do well in tall grass because they can’t see when predators are coming.
 
Live traps or shooting
 
Alternatively, people can live trap the ground squirrels and, under the direction of a veterinarian, humanely euthanize the animals.
 
“Though this may prove impractical and too costly for agriculturists (and) park managers to employ,” said Dr. Hare. “In such cases, shooting is to my mind more humane given that death is more immediate than with poisoned baits, and shooting avoids collateral damage to other wildlife that scavenge carcasses of dead squirrels.”
 
The resiliency of gophers
 
The fact that humans see Richardson ground squirrels as vermin, to me speaks to their resilience as a species, since as humans we basically took over their natural habitat with agricultural fields and urban centres. Other ground animals, like burrowing owls, aren’t as adaptable and are now endangered.
 
Dr. Hare said ground squirrels do well in parks, pastures, and recreation areas because when we mow long grass, we take away all the predator hiding spots.
 
“We create perfect ground squirrel habitat,” said Dr. Hare, adding that these creatures have evolved to produce large litters to help ensure their survival.
 
The fact that they spend most of their lives underground also helps with their resiliency.
 
If you want to know more about the Richardson ground squirrel, I highly recommend checking out the website of Dr. Gail R. Michner at the University of Lethbridge, which was recommended to me by Dr. Hare. The information on that website helped me put together this issue.
 
If you found this issue interesting, you might also enjoy an earlier issue of The Flatlander—Where do the buffalo roam these days?


Some people keep gophers as pets. GETTY IMAGES.

Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed

  1. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are going to lose at least one of their starting offensive lineman from their 2021 Grey Cup championship squad.
  2. Pine Creek First Nation is suing the Province of Manitoba and a logging company over Duck Mountain Forest rights.
  3. The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is handing out 15 burn bins to various homeless camps to help keep people warm.
  4. A Grandfather of Special Olympian embarks on a virtual walk across Canada.
  5. A Manitoban has been taking photos for Jones Soda labels. His most recent photo being featured is of a collection of signs beside a rural Manitoba road reading No Exit, Private Property, Private Drive and No Trespassing.

Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed

  1. Saskatchewan’s Mark McMorris won his tenth X Games gold medal and plans to compete in the Beijing Olympics next month.
  2. Indigenous woman hopes racist comments made at Regina General ER will result in valuable health-care lesson.
  3. The cost of food has been rising because of inflation, so a Saskatchewan woman started a Facebook group to share grocery cost-saving tips.
  4. A Regina man is being bombarded with emails and interview requests because people have been mistakenly confusing him with the inventor of Wordle who shares the same name.
  5. The Saskatchewan government is launching a public awareness campaign to help address the stigma often experienced by those facing mental health and addictions issues.  The radio ads, as part of this campaign will be translated into Cree and Dene. 

A red-tailed hawk, one of a number of predators that hunt gophers. GETTY IMAGES.

And just touching back on the issue RCMP, crime and why your property taxes could increase—while some of you wrote in to tell me you supported an RCMP pay raise; others, who had negative experiences with the police, did not.

A negative experience doesn’t necessarily mean excessive force was used; sometimes people, like Betty, who wrote me, are disappointed and angry when the police don’t follow up after they’ve been a victim of crime. This was after the RCMP had difficulty finding the hamlet that Betty’s call for help had originated.

There are a few complex reasons for why RCMP customer service can be poor, and some communities are better resourced with supporting victims of crime than others, so we will circle back to this in future issues of The Flatlander.

In February, The Flatlander will be publishing its first two in-depth investigations. It’s the kind of journalism that takes a lot of time because access to information requests need to be filed with the government and like the story I’m working on right now, I need to read through reports that can be more than 100 pages long, which is why I call this work slow journalism. But when you finally put all the puzzle pieces together it’s quite rewarding. So, keep an eye out for that soon.

Lastly, one of the upcoming issues in the very near future will be on a historical topic. If you ever have any suggestions or are curious about a certain issue, just hit reply to this email and let me know.

Until next week…

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Thanks for reading, and kind regards,

Kelly-Anne Riess

Important work at a critical time.

Over the last 20 years, on the Prairies and beyond,  local newsrooms have shrunk, which means not much investigative journalism gets done in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Flatlander is changing this.

 

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