September 27, 2008

Gophers Living Large in Parks

By Joe Segura

LONG BEACH - When a gopher - call him Ishmael - pops his furry frame up from its habitat, he sees a sea of green.

From horizon to horizon, at the sprawling El Dorado Regional Park, the lush landscape is prime turf for Ishmael and his furry family - thousands strong.

The exact number in the gopher family isn't known, but the rough educated guess is that there are about 100,000 calling the city's 3,000 acres of parks home, according to Ramon Arevalo, superintendent of grounds maintenance for the city's Parks, Recreation and Marine Department.

Ishmael isn't on the lookout for some madman Ahab, but for park groundkeepers intent on rehabs.

Environmentalists see the gophers as a critical part of the wildlife ecosystem, especially at El Dorado Park. However, the groundkeepers work to control the gopher populations, mainly in the playfields, in an attempt to minimize hazards - burrowed holes or compromised turf prone to caving.

"It's a common problem," said Arevalo.

The city park maintenance crews, however, wage a restrained effort against the gopher population.

Arevalo and the ground maintenance crews recognize the role gophers play, especially in the parks' ecosystems, which is most obvious at El Dorado Regional Park.

The park's critical food chain has the gopher as bait for predatory birds such as hawks, owls, herons and egrets, according to Ann Cantrell, environmental activist and treasurer of Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust.

"The birds have a feast," Arevalo chimed in. "This is their buffet."

Coyotes also feast on the gophers.

Long Beach Park Ranger David Sterling, director of Park Rangers Association of California's Region 4, said El Dorado Regional Park tends to be a large haven for the coyotes, which enjoy a meaty menu of gophers du jour.

They can be seen digging into the gopher holes - at times hunting for gophers, at others seeking ground squirrels, the ranger reported.

"They'll stick their nose into the holes," Sterling added. "They'll also do some cat-like pouncing."

There's no shortage of gophers, however, since they have up to eight breeding periods each year.

"They're prolific breeders," Arevalo added.

The population soars during heavy rainy seasons, and ebbs during dry spells, according to Arevalo. However, he added, the reduced gopher numbers do not reduce the coyote numbers, since there are other food sources such as ducks.

"They'll eat anything," Arevalo said.

The gophers generally migrate to grassy areas near water sources, and parks with lakes become prime terra firma, Arevalo said.

"It's easier for them to dig under that turf," he explained.

However, the burrowing not only causes hazards, but the herbivorous gophers destroy vegetation, especially around flower beds. Arevalo said one good deterrent is the Society Garlic plant.

"They won't touch it at all," he added.

In their population control effort, the maintenance crew members - those with training and credential license - use Fumitoxin pellets that don't stay in the system. Any predator eating dead gophers will not also be poisoned by the gas product.

Fumitoxin tablets and pellets begin to react with atmospheric moisture to produce small quantities of phosphine gas, according to the direction booklet by the producer, Pestcon Systems Inc.

Cantrell worries that any control efforts - especially with the use of gas - could also harm burrowing owls or herons. The herons, she added, place their beaks deep into the burrowed holes.

There also are ground squirrels and snakes that will be endangered, she added.

Arevalo counters that the maintenance crews are trained to know gopher holes from other underground tenants.

"They're completely different," he added.

The control effort generally results between 500 and 1,000 fewer gophers, according to Arevalo.

The gophers march on - renewing their ranks during the breeding periods, which last about 90 days, according to Arevalo. These days, however, the gophers' survival efforts are also assisted by city budgetary problems.

The park maintenance budget has been trimmed about 30 percent over the past eight years, city officials said, adding that about $30,000 had been available for labor and supplies.

The park maintenance workers have run short on gas poisoning supplies, Arevalo said.

Control efforts are mainly focused on sports fields - softball and soccer fields get attention - because of the safety concerns.

"That's all I can afford," Arevalo said. "I don't have enough funding to do every park."

Besides, the gophers are important to park wildlife, Arevalo emphasized.

"I don't want to eradicate them," he said. "I just want to control them."

So Ishmael and most of his furry friends will not need coffins for a while, and they can enjoy the sea of green lush landscape, munching on leaves of grass as he peers into the sanctuary, on the lookout for the predatory birds and coyotes.

"They'll have their happy life - forever," Arevalo declared.

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