Several kinds of burrowing rodents are sometimes called "gophers," but we should avoid such loose talk and reserve the term for pocket gophers. These are remarkable and distinctive animals. Their pockets are external, fur-lined cheek-pouches that carry food and nesting material.
Every part of Colorado has some kind of pocket gopher. The animals vary widely in color, often matching the soil in which they live: dark in mountain meadows and ashy pale in the San Luis Valley. Size ranges from a diminutive gopher (less than eight inches long and less than four ounces) in the sagebrush hills of Moffat County to a whopping 12 inches long and nearly 11 ounces in some plains pocket gophers.
Gophers are underground animals and are seldom seen. Mole-shaped, they are neck-less with tiny eyes and ear flaps, but their large yellow-faced front teeth are unmistakable.
Range: The northern pocket gopher lives in the mountains and northwest, the valley pocket gopher inhabits southern and western valleys, the chestnut-faced pocket gopher is found in the southeast, and the plains pocket gopher, logically enough, lives on the plains.
Habitat: Their burrows also are distinctive. They usually are plugged (so the mound of excavated soil has no hole in it), and they are deep enough that a ridge of turf is not created. Northern and valley pocket gophers create solid ribbons or "garlands" of excavated soil beneath the snow, which are exposed with spring thaw.
Burrows may be 200 yards long, produced by moving four tons of soil. They can be a nuisance when they burrow through ditch banks or throw mounds in the path of a mower. They aerate the soil, however, and provide deep channels that conserve runoff.
Diet: The diet of a pocket gopher consists of primarily roots, tubers and succulent stems under meadows, pastures and hay-lands.
Reproduction: Pocket gophers breed just once a year, in late winter or spring, producing two to five pink, blind, hairless young after a gestation period of perhaps three to four weeks. Coyotes and badgers excavate and eat pocket gophers. Gopher snakes and weasels are slim enough to follow them home, and spring floods kill nestlings. In their brief trips above ground, they can be caught by owls. A gopher that survives these perils may live five years.
By David M. Armstrong
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Environmental Studies Program, University Museum of Natural History
University of Colorado-Bouldermausmann@aol.com