You can catch groundhogs yourself, but you may not want to
They feast on fresh vegetables. They dine on beautiful flowers. They burrow holes in the ground.
“They” are groundhogs.
This time of year — especially — these rodents can wreak havoc. These aren’t cuddly and cute like Punxsutawney Phil or the Pennsylvania Lottery’s Gus.
These are trouble-causing and annoying, and homeowners can take matters into their own hands to catch them or call out the experts.
Who are these groundhogs?
Known by many names — chuck, groundhog, whistle pig, marmot, monax and others — the woodchuck is a common Pennsylvania game animal. They are closely related to tree and ground squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs and marmots.
Description: A groundhog is a mammal about 20-26 inches long, including a bristly, six-inch tail. Weights of adults vary from five to 10 pounds, with extremely large animals as heavy as 12-15 pounds.
Territory: Found throughout Pennsylvania in open fields, meadows, pastures, fencerows, and woodland edges and even deep in the woods
Diet: Groundhogs eat a variety of vegetation including green grasses, clover, alfalfa dandelion greens, garden vegetables such as beans, peas and carrots, and in the fall, apples and pears.
“They’re selective,” says Richard Thorington, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. “They’ll go for your best cabbages and best foods that you have out there.”
Why we don’t like them
A groundhog’s burrow can be anywhere from 8 to 66 feet long, with multiple exits and a number of chambers. These holes aerate the soil and provide excellent escape hatches for many other animals, but they are dangerous to livestock and farm machinery. They are often thought of as a “valuable nuisance,” according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s website.
There can be several levels to their burrows, says Stam Zervanos, retired professor of biology at Penn State University in Reading. “They have a burrow for hibernating, and then they have another section of the burrow that’s more like their summer home where they can come out more easily.”
In some cases, groundhogs have more than one residence and move from one burrow to another.
Those impressive tunneling skills can cause problems for farmers; tractors can break an axle driving over them, Zervanos says. Or people can trip in one of the holes and break a leg.
So what do you do?
Wildlife in Pennsylvania is protected, however, protection is removed in cases where wildlife is causing property damage, says Travis Lau, communications director, Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“They were here first. We built in their habitat, and if we provide them with the opportunity to have food then we have to accept that responsibility or go with a concrete yard to keep them from being a problem,” says Henry Kacprzyk, of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in Highland Park.
• Hunting: Property owners who are experiencing damage due to groundhogs always have the option of getting ride of them through hunting, assuming the property is not within the safety zone of a neighboring structure — generally, 150 yards when hunting with a firearm, 50 yards when hunting with a bow.
• Live-trapping: Setting traps is a good option for many wildlife species that are causing damage, such as rabbits, which can then be released at another approved location. But if you catch a groundhog, you’ll probably have to kill it.
“Since groundhogs are a rabies vector species, they should not be relocated,” Lau says. “Property owners who live trap groundhogs should be prepared to dispatch them. And given that the animal is in a trap at close range, it is a potentially risky situation. Live traps too always are capable of catching skunks.”
“If you trap one, and then release it, you are creating a problem for someone else,” Kacprzyk says.
• Hiring an expert. The cost starts around $50 and can be more based on mileage and amount of traps.
“Most people try and trap them on their own, but they usually end up calling one of us to help them,” says Pete Cappa, owner of Cappa Wildlife Control Services, based in Export, who baits his cages with apples and cabbage.
Licensed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in Harrisburg, Cappa says there is a process to capturing a groundhog. He covers the bottom of a cage with dirt and makes sure it doesn’t smell like a predator because then the groundhogs won’t go in.
This is a good time of year to get them, Cappa says, because once the first frost comes many will hibernate, and by late fall/early winter, they won’t be seen again until February or March.
They certainly can be a nuisance, agrees John Wilkinson of Mt. Pleasant Township, who also is licensed through the game commission.
“We put traps near creeks. They don’t have real good noses, so you have to kind of put it right in front of them,” says Wilkinson, who baits the cages with celery and carrots. “You have to know your target animal, but sometimes you get other animals, so you want a trap where you can release the animal you didn’t want to catch.”
When Wilkinson and Cappa trap a groundhog they are required by the game commission to euthanize the animal.
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-853-5062 or [email protected] or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.