In a town of animal lovers, there’s a public enemy

September 24, 2018

One part of Santa Fe’s underground hasn’t changed in more than a century.

The city treated pocket gophers as a plague then. Their standing is just as bad today, even as coyotes and prairie dogs have advocates, and even lawmakers looking out for them.

Pocket gophers simply don’t have many fans compared to other wild animals.

In investigating their history in places near and far, I came across a New Mexican story from 1900. It detailed in icy terms how to stop pocket gophers from wrecking alfalfa fields or other vegetation. Newspapers in the eastern United States reprinted the story, a sign that the burrowing rodents with pouches in their cheeks were unwelcome everywhere.

The New Mexican story suggested slicing moist potatoes and then lacing them with crystallized strychnine. “Gophers are very fond of potatoes, and one dose is usually fatal,” it advised.

Now Santa Fe’s city government is considering hiring a private company to decapitate gophers with mechanical traps. This would be the second consecutive year of trapping to reduce the population of gophers in city parks.

Gophers are damaging turf, trees, shrubs and electrical and irrigation lines, according to the city staff. They also create hazards for humans by digging holes that can twist ankles and trip joggers.

The company would receive $28 for every kill, up to a maximum expenditure of $75,000. Santa Fe awarded a similar contract last year with a $50,000 cap.

But that effort ended up being more of spot troubleshooting to salvage baseball diamonds for a summer tournament, said Richard Thompson, director of the Parks Division.

Pocket gophers aside, Santa Fe usually is a city tolerant of animals that other places often see as a nuisance.

For instance, Santa Fe bans the killing of any troublesome prairie dogs in favor of relocating them. And many residents trek to the state Capitol each time there’s a bill to outlaw various yahoos from staging competitions to see who can kill the most coyotes.

Like skunks, coyotes are classified by the state Department of Game and Fish as unprotected furbearers. They can be killed anytime and in any number.

But biologists say killing contests might only make coyotes more prevalent. Mass killings can disrupt the social order of packs, leading to more breeding and a population increase.

So coyotes have friends who have tried without success to ban the killing contests. Furtive pocket gophers don’t enjoy anywhere near that level of support.

Signe Lindell is probably the Santa Fe City Council’s best-known advocate for animals. She sponsored a successful ordinance last year to outlaw exotic animal acts. Her aim was to keep circuses that feature lions, tigers, bears and elephants from doing business in the city.

That measure created a buzz across town. Not so with the proposal for city-sanctioned killing of gophers.

“Interestingly enough, I’ve not had calls on it,” Lindell said.

Still, her natural inclination is to resist the plan to kill gophers.

“Chances are, I would oppose it because I’m opposed to trapping,” Lindell said.

She also said she has to guard her reputation as “Councilor Cheapskate.” In her view, the possibility of spending $75,000 to destroy gophers needs closer examination.

“We throw around some awfully big numbers with zeroes and commas,” she said. “Perhaps there are other methods.”

Or perhaps the pocket gopher is a breed apart, as it has been for so long in so many places.

The Kansas Legislature in 1910 approved a bill ordering each county to pay a bounty of 5 cents for every scalp of a pocket gopher. It was one of many jurisdictions that encouraged elimination of the rodents.

All that has changed is the price. Santa Fe might pay $28 for each kill in the interest of a better parks system.

The city has been criticized for the poor condition of many parks. Gopher holes have been one of the negatives in reviews, including those done by The New Mexican.

So pocket gophers are back in the headlines. They have had a place there on and off since Roosevelt was president. Teddy Roosevelt, that is.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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