Comparing and Contrasting Burrowers in Garden and Government: Seeking Strategies for Removal

I just learned about something called  burrowing, where appointed officials make their way into the civil service and become career employees. You can’t get rid of them. Apparently there are a bunch in the federal government left over from trump. I wonder how long the citizenry will have to live with them and how much damage they might do.

Then I wonder about our own burrowing animals right here at Hylandia. One day last summer, covid-confined to our back yard, Holly and I saw the ground start to move. It was not an earthquake. Some animal was making its way just under the thinnest layer of garden soil. We watched quietly, fixated, but when we tried to sneak up and unmask it, the creature disappeared. 

“Oh my goddess we have gophers!” I yelped. 

No burrowing animals ever invaded my San Francisco garden but Holly had years of experience combatting gophers when she lived in Santa Barbara.“They love poppies,” she declared. And so we waited for the many poppies in our yard to be pulled underground just like Bugs Bunny did in cartoons. But only one plant, a sunflower, suffered root damage.

Later in the fall, looking out our picture window, we watched a tall cosmos plant shimmy as if in an earthquake. The dance went on for many minutes. Nothing else in the garden moved. The burrowers were at it again.

Infrastructure was affected. Holly continually leveled out the birdbath fountain and then it would be undermined and again tipped at an angle.

We installed raised beds with gopher wire and bought wire cages to plant in.

Then we started seeing cone-shaped piles of dirt around the garden. We saw no hole in the middle and no tunnels. We were flummoxed. Gophers leave a horseshoe shaped mound of earth near their burrows and the entrance hole is visible. 

Maybe we didn’t have gophers. But what could it be? Someone told us that local gardeners have problems with voles. I have seen voles in the mountains emerging from their burrows on backpacking mornings, but I didn’t know they lived here or were found in gardens.

We decided our culprits were voles, also called meadow mice, the cutest of the burrowing animals likely to be found in gardens, but possibly the most damaging. They look like mice with shorter tails and rounder heads, about five inches long. Voles pay no attention to gopher wire. They just climb right up into the raised beds and gnaw at the base of plants, even killing trees. 

Plants were not dying and we saw no evidence of gnawed trunks on our fruit trees. Maybe they weren’t voles. Our period of idle speculation continued for a while until we finally googled. 

The three main burrowing animal “pests” are voles, moles and gophers. When you look them up online, the whole first page of google is filled with pest control companies explaining how these mammals damage your lawn and how to get rid of them by poison or other means. 

I did find one website that was not only about extermination—the Oregon State University Extension Service. It says, “Moles, voles and gophers all improve the soil by aerating it and mixing nutrients, but sometimes their habits get them in trouble with gardeners.”

Wow! They all improve the soil! Our soil here is dense clay that resists the spade in the dry season. Could burrowing animals be good for our garden?

“The important part is for people to assess the level of damage with the level of control,” says Dana Sanchez, wildlife specialist. “Is having a few holes in the lawn enough of a problem that you need to take action?”

Thank you Dana Sanchez! Perhaps we can live with burrowing animals in our garden. We already live with rats, birds, cats, opossums, raccoons, fence lizards and squirrels.

Reading descriptions of these animals and their habits made us decide we have moles, not voles. Moles leave mounds of dirt and voles do not. Moles eat worms, slugs and insects; voles eat plants. They are way more dissimilar than their names suggest. Moles are in the order Eulipotyphla along with shrews. Voles are Rodentia, as are gophers and rats.

We learned that we will probably never see a mole. Unlike gophers and voles, they really do spend their entire lives underground. They make two tunnel systems, one deep in the earth about ten inches down and one closer to the surface. They are solitary and one mole can have a territory of two back yards. Maybe we have only one mole.

Moles are not as damaging as gophers and voles. Moles don’t destroy plants except by sometimes undermining the roots by leaving a void underneath. Would I feel the same way if we had gophers or voles destroying our plants? Probably not. I’d be scheming about how to exterminate them. My brother told me his husband once put gas down into a gopher hole and lit the fumes. It seemed like the whole yard raised up in the explosion, he said. There are videos on YouTube. Apparently people do this all the time. What would you look up? I wondered. He suggested “mole yard explosion.”

I remember during the cold war when mole also meant a spy. We used to worry about Soviet moles in the government, spies who spent lives burrowing in. Now it’s the Russians and the moles are people sitting at computer consoles far out of reach. Reports suggest they have burrowed into every part of our government, although that scandal hasn’t seen much light lately.

And we must add to that white supremacist and nazi moles. How many of these moles are still in the military? Were moles the reason the military failed to aid the capitol police in the recent attempt to overthrow our government? And members of Congress—shall we view those who voted to defend trump as moles who have now been exposed?

Now that we know moles aren’t so damaging to gardens, maybe we can live with them. But I’m not so sanguine about living with moles in the government and the military.  If I google “moles in the government” perhaps I’ll find strategies for removing the burrowers.