If ever there were a time to make money off gopher trapping, now is the time.

Not only are townships offering up to $5 for a set of front feet, but some internet providers are offering to double that in hopes of protecting their fiber optic cable from the rodents.

“The gopher market’s getting pretty hot,” said Bob Leegaard, chairman of the Runestone Telecom Association board. He cited gopher chews as one of the biggest challenges in extending top-speed internet to their customers.

Pocket gophers spend most of their time below ground, digging holes. Their activity is not without benefit. Their tunnels aerate ground that has been compacted by livestock or farm machinery, said the National Wildlife Federation, and capture snowmelt and rainfall that would otherwise cause erosion.

However, pocket gopher mounds can damage farm equipment and the rodents have developed a taste for bundles of fiber-optic glass wires that lie buried about four feet underground. The wires are wrapped in a rodent-resistant outer jacket and armored sheath, but even these defenses crumble under the onslaught of generations of skilled, determined chewers.

“After 12 years of chewing, eventually they will get their teeth inside the cable and quickly damage the fiber-optic glass strands,” Dave Wolf, executive director of Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association, wrote in the May/June 2019 company newsletter. “Unfortunately, this tends to happen when it’s extremely cold out and the ground is frozen.”

Most cuts happen between Thanksgiving and April Fool’s Day, he said.

“My guess is they are stuck underground without a lot to chew on,” he wrote.

When internet crews plow cables into the ground, they create a cut in the earth that is easy to burrow through, helping rodents locate their lines, he said.

The gophers disrupt internet service, as well as cell phones, credit card transactions, cable TV and 911 service, and cost up to $32,000 to repair, Wolf wrote. This winter, he said, they had “dozens” of cable cuts.

Gardonville allocated $2,500 to match bounties in townships where it runs fiber-optic cable. That ran out fairly quickly and the board approved another round of matches, said spokesperson Toni Edwards.

This year, Runestone paid an extra bounty only in Grant County townships, said manager Kent Hedstrom, and then only to telecom cooperative members. It has reimbursed those townships an extra $3 per gopher, meaning trappers there receive $7 per gopher. They are looking at expanding the extra bounty to the rest of their service area, including southwestern Douglas County, next year.

So far, they’ve paid for about 130 gophers, he said.

“I’m sure there’ll be more coming in,” he said. “We didn’t have any limit on it. We’ve had about $120,000 in damage over the last three winters.”

Enterprising trappers in the right township could make more than $1,000 a season. One boy, too young to drive, brought in 150 gophers to Moe Township, which pays $5 per gopher, said township board member Lynn Bushard. With a telecom match, that’s $10 per gopher, or $1,500 if the trapper submits a claim to Gardonville.

Bushard said the gopher trade had been pretty quiet for a couple years during which the gopher population had a chance to explode. The township raised its rates this year to encourage more trapping, and have been inundated with gopher feet. Trappers cut off the distinctive front feet of dead gophers as proof.

What do the trappers do with their cash reward?

One youngster bought a bicycle, Bushard said. Another bought a fishing pole.

The lure of extra cash hasn’t seemed to work everywhere.

“We have not had anybody turn in gophers this year and we even went up to $4,” said Judi Andreasen, clerk of Urness Township. “No, I take that back. We had one person bring some in but it was only a few.”

It’s possible, she said, that trappers are hanging onto their gopher feet. Trappers can bring their gopher feet to any monthly township meeting during the year, and often store the feet in the freezer so they only have to make one trip.

Mike Cleary, secretary of Brandon Township, which pays $3 for a pocket gopher, said his township has paid out $400 so far.

“We seen more come in this year than ever before,” he said. “We’ve seen some kids bring them in; it’s nice income for kids.”

Leaf Valley Township has not seen any extra gopher trapping despite the telecommunications bounty, said clerk Pamela Cuperus.

“The year isn’t over yet,” she said. “It’d be nice if the word got out (about the extra bounty). Those darn things cause a lot of damage. They just chew on anything. Our supervisors are farmers and they’re all very thankful when someone brings in the gopher feet.”

When trappers do bring in gopher feet, she refuses to touch them, and the township supervisors are tasked with disposal. How they do that, she doesn’t know.

“They could take them home and make soup for all I know,” she said.