Groundhogs, also called woodchucks, are common throughout Pennsylvania. Of course, we are all familiar with the most famous Pennsylvania groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, who predicts the end of winter each February. However, a groundhog’s feeding and burrowing may cause conflicts with humans from time to time. Damage can especially be problematic on farms, in home gardens, orchards, and nurseries. However, there are many techniques to help humans and groundhogs live harmoniously.
The first issue when dealing with wildlife conflicts is to accurately identify the animal causing damage. It’s important to note that groundhogs hibernate from early November to late February, so if you are experiencing damage during that time, it is likely from another animal, such as a deer or rabbit. If you are confident that a groundhog is the one causing damage, there are several techniques you can use to address the issues.
If you do have a conflict with a groundhog, please avoid calling Animal Care and Control, or a pest control company. By state law, these animals must be killed when trapped by professionals, and it’s typically not done in a humane way. Common means of killing by wildlife control companies are injecting acetone into the animal’s chest with a syringe and drowning, both very inhumane and unnecessary.
Groundhogs are an important part of the ecosystem, providing food for coyotes, foxes, weasels, badgers, hawks, and eagles. Their burrows give shelter to amphibians, reptiles, smaller rodents, and even larger animals like foxes.
Humans and groundhogs have coexisted for years without conflict. If you have a groundhog burrow on your property and don’t have any conflicts with it, please consider letting it be.
Eviction From Burrows
If burrows are problematic to your land, eviction and exclusion are recommended. Groundhogs can be harried from burrows by harassment or by disturbing the burrow system. However, there is only a small window of time in the year when this can be done humanely, so timing is crucial.
Breeding females have dependent young in their burrows from late winter until spring or early summer, and eviction during this time would be inhumane. Females will resist abandoning their young, even under great duress. However, if you wait too late in the year when groundhogs put on weight and secure a suitable location to hibernate, you will impede their winter survival. As such, the best time to evict is from mid-late summer or between early July and late September. If you watch closely, you may actually see the young groundhogs as they first venture above ground. If so, you can begin eviction about three weeks later with relative assurance that it will avoid affecting the offspring.
Before you close a burrow, make sure you test for activity. Loosely plug all of the burrow entrances with grass clippings, newspaper, or similar material, and then monitor activity to determine if the burrow is currently vacant. If, after three to five days in clear summer weather, the material has not been disturbed, you can assume the burrow is unoccupied. At this point, you can use heavy-gauge, welded fencing wire (with no larger than three-inch squares) to close burrows. Follow these simple instructions:
- Cut the wire into three-by-three foot sections;
- Center a section over each burrow entrance;
- Bury the fencing at least one foot deep; and
- Pin it down if necessary with landscape staples.
- Even when a burrow’s entrance is barely recognizable, a groundhog’s highly developed sense of smell allows them to locate places where others have lived months or even years before. As such, if you find an abandoned burrow, you can prevent them from returning by burying a three-foot-square panel of welded wire centered over the entrance hole.
If the burrow system is occupied, you must use harassment to remove the animals. To do so:
- Partially dig the entrance out;
- Clear vegetation away from entrances;
- Put some harmless but strong-smelling substance just inside the entrance (such as urine-saturated clumps of kitty litter, tennis balls soaked in vinegar, or dirty gym socks);
- Loosely seal the entrance, so the smell stays inside the burrow; and
- Monitor the closed burrow every few days to make sure it is not still occupied.
- When it is clear that the burrow is empty, you can permanently seal it.
Groundhogs like to navigate in fairly high vegetation. As such, removing vegetation around burrows can create insecurity and, with other eviction methods applied simultaneously, can encourage them to abandon a burrow system. During the course of the year, groundhogs routinely move between burrow systems, and a burrow may be abandoned or unoccupied for weeks or even months before it is reopened.
Eviction from Yards and Gardens
Even though groundhogs are good climbers, you can protect a garden with fencing. Fences work best when protecting relatively small areas. At a minimum, a successful fence should:
- Be made of chicken or welded wire with a mesh size no bigger than three by three inches;
- Reach three to four feet above ground level;
- Have twelve to eighteen inches of unsecured fencing at the top so it wobbles as the groundhog tries to climb it, or, for a more rigid fence, bend the top ten to fifteen inches outward at a 45-degree angle to prevent climbing; and
- Have an L-footer base that is buried or pinned to the ground or a single strand of electric fencing four inches off the ground and six inches in front to prevent digging.
As cautious animals, groundhogs can be frightened by new objects in the environment, such as silver Mylar helium balloons or a beach ball suspended in the air. These scare devices may keep them away temporarily but are more likely to be effective if they are changed frequently.
Please note: Humane Action Pittsburgh (HAP) is not a wildlife rescue and is unable to address concerns or assist with wildlife emergencies. Please utilize the resources on our website to find the appropriate organization to contact. Submissions to HAP through our contact form or email will not be able to be addressed.