by Connie Oswald Stofko
Maxine Osiewicz of Clarence watched last year as woodchucks decimated her dahlias.
“You could see the woodchucks slapping the stems down and eating all the leaves,” she said.
Woodchucks (also known as groundhogs) can damage trees and shrubs, too.
Woodchucks gnaw or claw woody vegetation, according to a factsheet by Paul D. Curtis and Kristi L. Sullivan that was produced by Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Wildlife Damage Management Program. Woodchucks also strip bark at the base of trees near their burrow entrance to mark their territories.
The mounds of dirt left from digging those burrows can be a headache for gardeners as well.
The woodchuck population expanded when settlers cleared forests for farms, creating a suitable habitat for them. Today, this highly adaptable mammal commonly inhabits farm fields, suburban neighborhoods and idle lands, according to the Cornell factsheet on woodchucks.
This is similar to how we have created a great habitat for deer in our suburban gardens.
So how do you deal with woodchucks?
“They’re not easy,” said John Farfaglia, extension educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Niagara County.
Most of this article discusses things that don’t work because, well, a lot of the things you would expect to work aren’t effective.
What seems to be the best choice for gardeners is a single-strand rope fence sprayed with bobcat urine. See more in the section on repellents and fencing.
Why trapping & hunting isn’t practical
While you are allowed to live-trap woodchucks on your own property, there is a catch. You can’t move the woodchucks off your property.
If you live in the city or suburbs, moving a woodchuck from one corner of your yard to another corner isn’t going to solve your problem.
However, you can hire a licensed professional to remove a woodchuck from your property. The DEC has a list of Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators here.
Hunting woodchucks on your small property is prohibited in New York State because you can’t discharge a firearm within 500 feet of a building or park. You can’t use a bow and arrow within 150 feet of a building or park. See all the details here.
There are other lethal methods, such as using #2 foothold traps or #160 or #220 bodygripping traps placed at the burrow entrance.
However, even if you use lethal methods, the results are generally short-term. In a Pennsylvania study, 1,040 woodchucks were removed from a 600-acre site over four years without significantly affecting the population, according to the Cornell woodchuck factsheet. This was due to several factors, including increased birth rates and movement of animals onto the site from surrounding areas.
Repellants and fences
There aren’t any special repellents for woodchucks, and deer and rabbit repellents don’t work for woodchucks, according to the Cornell Factsheet.
However, the odor of a predator may repel woodchucks. Bobcat urine sprayed on the base of apple trees has been shown to reduce woodchuck gnawing by 98 percent relative to untreated trees.
(I don’t know who stocks bobcat urine locally. If you can’t find bobcat urine, coyote urine might work. No, I don’t know who stocks coyote urine locally, either.)
Bobcat urine used in combination with electric or rope fences reduced damage to cabbage fields in New York. In this study, electric fences alone or electric fences with cloth strips sprayed with bobcat urine were nearly 100 percent effective at reducing woodchuck damage to cabbage.
A single-strand rope fence sprayed with bobcat urine reduced woodchuck damage by 90 percent, according to the Cornell Factsheet, and is a simple, low-cost approach for homeowners.
Fencing by itself can be very effective at reducing woodchuck damage, but precautions must be taken to keep woodchucks from climbing over or digging under fencing. The Cornell Factsheet has details on how to set up effective fencing.
The factsheet also contains information on woodchuck habitat, food habits and general biology that you may find useful.