From the pages of
The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 46 - 7/14/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online


by DeeAnn Price

"Ground squirrels are the most important food item for hawks in this area." says Susan Patla, Jackson's Game and Fish expert on nongame species. We have the Wyoming species of ground squirrel - or "gophers" - in valley areas of Sublette County; while the Unita Ground Squirrel usually inhabits the mountain areas. The two are hard to tell apart except for their preference for different habitat. Because of the ground squirrel's significance as food for predators, Ms. Patla urged everyone to practice tolerance.

It's hard to get sentimental over or even tolerant of a creature that rushes out to eat his road kill buddy before its carcass even stops quivering. Ms. Patla pointed out that only 14 percent of the gopher's diet is animal tissue, but their penchant for vegetables, doesn't make them very popular either. When we moved here in June of '78 we planted a garden right next to our trailer thinking we could fend off any raiders. One day, shooting out of various windows, I killed over 40 gophers with the .22. My husband, Charles, told me that at the rate I was killing gophers, we couldn't afford the ammunition and went out and bought a pellet gun. All I managed to raise that year were some spindly onions I thought I could grow from seed. The gophers, with a little help from the rabbits and sage chickens, made off with the rest of the garden.

Years ago, kids used their own imagination and thought up their own fun. Gophers were merely a nuisance and a fine thing for target practice. When Charles was young he and his brothers killed numerous ground squirrels. If they could catch one in a culvert they stoned it and they shot everyone they could. They usually used .22 shorts for ammunition as they were about half the price of the .22 long rifle cartridges.

Dick Noble used the .22 shorts too because, "Dad told us the others would 'lead' the barrel." They were only a dime a box and his dad was trying to save a little money. "I probably shot up more ammunition than the average kid, just shooting ground squirrels." Dick confided.

With only one steel trap to use, Charles often looped a piece of string around the squirrel's hole, pulled on the end when the squirrel popped out and caught him around the body. Dick used this method as well. "It was easy!" Charles reflected.

Gophers were handy too when Charles and his brothers tried raising red tailed hawks as pets. Charles would go up the tree and grab a half grown youngster out of the nest, while another brother, usually Marvin, stayed below, throwing rocks to distract the mother hawk. The young birds enjoyed the dead squirrels provided for them but once they could fly the hawks took off and never returned. All their plans were for nothing.

Some ranch kids, always eager to perfect their technique, branded gophers with a wire heated over the fire. Gene Pearson would catch gophers in a trap and brand the ones that didn't have broken legs. What brand did he use? "We made one up, Gene said, "I think it had a P in it." He didn't try to ear mark the squirrels, but did cut off their tails.

Charles branded gophers with their ranch brand, Open Box Lazy T, but lost interest after a bit. The gophers had a nasty bite and "it was tough holding them down without losing a finger," he remarked.

Dick had an even more innovative use for gophers. "We broke 'em," Dick said, "We'd hook 'em up with little harnesses and make them pull." His squirrels were put into slave labor hauling little loads here and there.

Gophers dig their own holes and may go underground as early as July. By August or September they are hibernating and don't emerge until March or April. "I always thought I'd shot all the squirrels by the 10th of August," Dick related, because they were all in their holes by then.

Ranch kids weren't the only ones who spent summer days huntin' gophers. Journal editor Rob Shaul says he and his childhood buddies killed plenty of gophers up at the Pinedale Rodeo Grounds. "We'd take buckets up and fill them with water from the irrigation ditch," said Rob. "After we chased the gopher into it's hole we'd pour water down after him and drowned him out. He'd emerge all wet and scared looking. That's when we'd try and plug him with a wrist rocket [sling shot] or bow and arrow." For all the time he spent hunting gophers at the Rodeo Grounds, Rob says he wasn't very successful. "I got maybe ten gophers total," he says, adding that it's more difficult hitting a gopher with a wrist rocket than you'd think.

Boundurant's Paul Postma used his dog to hunt gophers. "Gophers like to live under wood piles," says Paul Paul would move the wood around, which he says upset his parents, "because I would strew our woodpile all over the yard." "Pepper" a border collie, Australian shepard mix would "hunch there, waiting and watching," he said. When Paul had dug out a gopher from the wood, Pepper would "jump on it, and shake it to death."

"You know who had a really good gopher dog," continues Mr. Postma, "was John Paravicini. John's dog would wait until he'd shoot 'em with a pellet gun, and then she'd run up and grab em." Paul says it was pretty impressive.

Not all hibernating squirrels go underground. Sometimes we find them between our hay bales. As I held one in my hand, I thought how much it resembled a hard furry ball with its tail curled right over the head. The body was rigid as a board, yet after several hours in a warm room it slowly came to and begin to chirp.

Though I've seen many ground squirrels inhabit a surrounding area, Susan Patla declared that they are mainly solitary and only get together to mate. Mating occurs about 30 days after emerging from their holes in the spring and the babies are born 28 days later. One litter of six to eight is born per year, and the youngsters are weaned within four or five weeks.

Ms. Patla pointed out that squirrel numbers don't go up or down in cycles like rabbits or mice. Their numbers are mainly affected by disease and predators.

I'm not complaining, but we haven't seen the squirrels around here that we usually do. Now I'm wondering - if it has anything to do with an abundant number of skunks, a too close family of foxes or our eight hungry cats!

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The Sublette County Journal, PO Box 3010, Pinedale, WY 82941   Phone 307-367-3713
Publisher/Editor: Rob Shaul