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Sometimes in the forest, especially around meadows, you may see mounds of dark black dirt lying atop the ground like someone had just dumped a load from a small wheelbarrow.

Turns out those piles of fresh topsoil have been excavated by small rodents called pocket gophers. Montana is within the range of the northern pocket gopher, which measures about 8 inches long.

The pocket gopher gets its name from its expandable cheeks, or pockets, in which it can carry food. But the rodent also has some other interesting features.

Its front teeth are always exposed, but its lips can close behind the teeth, probably to keep dirt out. A pocket gopher has long claws on only three toes for digging and will sometimes tunnel more than 400 feet. It has such loose skin that it can turn around inside its tunnels. And the gopher has a stubby, nearly bald tail that helps guide it when it retreats.

For food, the gopher will dine on the roots of plants that it finds poking down into its tunnels. It will also travel outside its den to eat vegetation mainly in the spring, but it doesn't spend as much time outside as other burrowing rodents like the prairie dog or ground squirrel - mammals that are sometimes incorrectly referred to as gophers.

The pocket gopher is such a busy digger that one gopher can bring two to four tons of soil to the surface in a year, according to the Montana Field Guide.

That's a lot of dirt, especially if the gopher is pushing it up onto your yard.

— Brett French,

Gazette Outdoors editor

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Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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