Gophers Beware Concerned about the impacts of chemical solutions to a growing gopher problem, one California park has brought in the owls

Western Gateway Park in Penn Valley, California, has a gopher problem. After years of trying various eradication methods, the park’s board of directors is opting for a “green” approach to rid the park of the pesky rodents. They’re calling in the owls.

Earlier this year park officials installed barn owl boxes throughout the 88-acre park nestled in the foothills of the Sierras.

“We’ve tried chemicals; we’ve tried propane blasting,” says retired biologist Bruce Reinhardt, who serves on the five-member volunteer park board. “I’ve even done some trapping.”

Still, the park is riddled with gopher holes—thousands of them. The holes and related soil mounds are more than an eyesore; they lead to twisted ankles and other injuries. But toxic chemicals typically used for gopher control can be harmful to other wildlife. The anticoagulants bring death slowly, making poisoned gophers easier for predators to catch, which, in turn, can sicken the predators.

In January, Reinhardt and five other volunteers—all members of the senior softball league that uses the park’s ball fields—built 17 owl boxes. Each box, installed on trees some 10 to 15 feet high, is 16 to 18 inches tall and has a five-inch hole. “Barn owls are great hunters but lousy house-builders,” says Reinhardt. “I’ve even seen them in abandoned meter boxes.”

Owls—if they take up residence at the park—will eat a large number of rodents, up to 3,000 prey per year per owl pair. It’s still too early to tell how many boxes have been occupied. But Reinhardt says he’s heard barn owls in the park, and he and the board are keeping their fingers crossed.

CONTACT: Western Gateway Park.