MANKATO, Minn. - Elaine Poulson is now accustomed to counting gopher tails. They're delivered in plastic bags or cheap bins, and Poulson counts each one.
In Nicollet County's Lafayette Township, each pocket gopher nets $3. The tails themselves end up in Poulson's garden.
"One time, somebody turned in feet. That was grisly," she said.
In 2008, the township collected 436 gophers, and paid $1,308. Nicollet County reimburses its townships, but only at $1 per tail, leaving the township to pick up most of the fee.
State laws allowing counties to offer bounties for gophers were enacted in 1909, and many counties continue to offer the bounty because, well, it's just always been done that way.
"It's probably never been called into question," said Dennis McCoy, administrator of Blue Earth County, where the bounties were set at a recent County Board meeting at $1 per pocket gopher and 50 cents per striped gopher.
"Those aren't real high-buck items in the county budget, obviously," he said. "If we're looking for savings, we'll look for larger items than that."
Blue Earth County spent $750 on bounties in 2007 and $256.50 in 2008. Nicollet County spent $489 last year.
But McCoy and others hint that if the bounties ever go away, it would be in a year like this one.
"We are looking under every rock to find ways to reduce our expenditures. Maybe it's an item they're going to visit this year," he said.
The gophers targeted by bounties aren't the same species you see bounding alongside roads or cheering on the University of Minnesota's athletic teams.
These are "pocket" gophers, and they're responsible for large mounds of dirt often seen in fields and lawns. They live almost all of their life underground and their hairless tails and short fur make them look like moles or large rats.
As Mankato outdoorsman Marty Walgenbach puts it: "Unless you trap 'em, you've never seen a pocket gopher."
Striped gophers — actually ground squirrels — are sometimes caught in the traps, but they don't dig the holes themselves and they typically earn only half the bounty of a pocket gopher. Though the details may vary township to township, striped gophers are redeemed in Blue Earth County's Lime Township with their fluffy tails, while pocket gopher bounties are collected with a pair of their large, clawed front legs.
Walgenbach said pocket gophers are so named for the pouches alongside their mouths that they use to store grass.
There have been 109 striped gophers redeemed for bounty in Blue Earth County over the past two years, compared to 667 pocket gophers.
Adam Miller, 22, began setting pocket gopher traps when he was 13 or so. After a season of stalking around in fields alongside his brother and stepfather, they'd collect the feet in a butter dish or an ice cream pail and set off for the township building.
After splitting the catch three ways, Adam would end up with maybe $150, but he wouldn't rush off to buy a video game or go to the movies.
"I was a saver," he said. "It went to the bank."
Once he caught a weasel in a trap, and his stepfather had its hide tanned. Another time, he watched a snowy owl descend on a gopher's body.
Now he traps gopher less often, but is the go-to guy when a family acquaintance spots mounds popping up on their lawns.
Walgenbach traps gophers on a neighbor's horse pasture in exchange for permission to hunt for deer there. The burrows can be dangerous to horses that might accidentally injure a leg stepping in them.
Gopher hunting with traps is pretty simple as Walgenbach, 30, explains it.
He finds a mound of dirt, then uses a 2-foot-long piece of metal to find the tunnel. Then he clears away the dirt and places a trap with a name like a heavy metal band — it's called a "death clutch" — into the hole.
No bait is necessary, because the pocket gophers don't like light, and crawl up in an attempt to close the hole, he said. They're killed by the trap, and Walgenbach cuts the front legs off and puts them in a box affixed to his four-wheeled ATV.
He's caught more than 300 during the past few years.
Gopher trapping probably traces back to the initial efforts to farm here, said Lyle Femrite, a supervisor at Decoria Township.
Their holes and mounds were a problem for farmers, especially those raising a hay crop because the dirt interfered with the harvest. Bounties were enacted to create an incentive to remove gophers.
The gophers have become less of a nuisance as farming practices changed. Corn and soybeans are less vulnerable to the pests, but they have been known to dig kernels of corn out of the ground after planting, Femrite said.
The rodents can still cause problems to a hay crop and their holes can pose a danger to horses.
Others just don't like the look of mounds on their manicured lawns. But even if killing one gopher puts an end to its own burrowing, the practice of trapping isn't likely to make a huge impact on their numbers.
Tom Conroy, with the southern region of the Department of Natural Resources, says, "Our experience has been that bounties typically don't work."
First, "nature abhors a vacuum," meaning gophers will repopulate habitats even if they're consistently killed.
Bounties are also typically difficult to manage; it's usually impossible to prove that the animal was harvested in the jurisdiction offering the bounty.
And as with any organism, "they all play a role, they're all connected," so a reduction in the gopher population is bound to have unintended side effects.
"You just wonder what the motivations for providing bounties are, when you look at the facts: (they're) a temporary stopgap measure with no long-term results," Conroy said.
Still, the gopher hunters see it differently.
For Walgenbach, it's an excuse to tool around on his ATV.
For Dennis Leiferman of Mankato, it can be a good way for kids to make some extra spending money.
"I really don't see why more people don't do it," he said. "Once you get the knack of it, it's easy to do."
Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com
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