Gophers and muskrats, oh why?

The Washington Conservation District offers advice and assistance to help private landowners and local communities restore and improve habitat. Healthy, intact forests, prairies and wetlands support wildlife; promote clean water; and give us places to hike, bike, canoe, camp, and recreate. What happens, though, when wildlife habitat brings…wildlife to our yards?

Who lives here?

Famed naturalist and forest preservationist John Muir once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Take prairie as an example. Home to big bluestem, lead plant, black-eyed susans, Indian grass, and dozens of other plant species, this habitat is known for towering flowers and grasses with extensive roots that can grow as deep as 14 feet. A prairie is more than a blanket of plants, however.

Prairies are home to birds and insects, reptiles and mammals. The federally endangered Karner blue butterfly lays its eggs on lupine, while the prairie skink (one of only three lizards found in Minnesota) nestles low beneath rocks and logs. Bison may be the most charismatic prairie inhabitant, but prairies are also home to badgers, bobolinks, and meadowlarks, as well as ants, mycorrhizae, bryophytes, and lichen.

Whose egg is this?

This lengthy introduction brings us to the question of the gopher. In Minnesota, there are several species of small mammal that people call gophers. The University of Minnesota ‘Golden Gopher’ mascot was actually inspired by the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, a small mammal that originally lived only in prairies but has since adapted to live anywhere grasslands exist. They eat seeds, leaves, and grass, along with insects, small birds, and lizards.

The northern pocket gopher is a threatened species, found only in western Kittson County in the far northwestern corner of the state. The plains pocket gopher is more common and is often considered a pest when it tunnels through our lawns and gardens. In a native planting or restored prairie, however, gophers should be considered a friend. Their tunnels aerate the soil and provide homes for numerous other wildlife as well. In other words, gophers are just as much a part of the prairie as bison, bluestem, and butterflies. Yes, the prairie will be bumpy instead of flat, but nature tends to be that way.

Plains pocket gopher

Muskrats are another mammal that people love to hate. These furry, little creatures look like miniature beavers with skinny tails. They prefer marshes where the water level stays constant but also live in lakes and ponds. Muskrats burrow into banks and create tunnels where they can safely hide from predators. They eat cattails, wild rice, water lilies, and rushes, but also supplement their diets with small fish, clams, snails, and even tiny turtles. During the winter, they swim under the ice to get to the plants.

Many landscape companies advise shoreline landowners to install riprap with wire mesh to prevent muskrats from tunneling into lakeshore lawns. However, there are many downsides to this strategy. Riprap significantly alters the shoreline and eliminates habitat for spawning fish, turtles and birds – not just muskrats. It can also cause erosion on neighboring properties. For this reason, many cities and watershed districts do not allow riprap unless there is a severe erosion problem.

A tale of two shorelines. The house on the left has created an expensive and highly structured yard that provides little to no habitat for birds or other wildlife. The house on the right uses a less expensive, more natural approach that provides privacy and habitat.

A simpler, more natural solution to muskrat problems is to plant native plants along the shoreline and keep lawns uphill, closer to the home. The muskrats will continue to burrow happily within the native buffer area but their tunnels, covered by flowers and sedges, will no longer mar the view. Be prepared for a shoreline garden’s composition to change over time as flowers migrate from one location to another and plant species wax and wane. Nature is both beautiful and dynamic. For advice on habitat restoration, sign up for a free site visit with the Washington Conservation District at Staff will help to connect you with available grants and can provide expertise about woodlands, prairie, wetlands, native gardens, raingardens, and shoreline planting projects.

A beautiful raingarden in Lake Elmo helps to protect nearby Klawitter Pond from runoff pollution and provide habitat.