The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 29, 2013

Cross: Gopher paw caper provided more than pocket change

By John Cross
jcross@mankatofreepress.com

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Anyone who has engaged in the spring ritual of trapping pocket gophers probably found the following news item that appeared on the Free Press website a week ago a bit intriguing:

PRESTON (AP) — A mother and her 18-year-old son from southeastern Minnesota are accused of stealing nearly $5,000 in frozen gopher feet and selling them for a bounty.

Now, I'm old enough to remember when a nickle would buy a candy bar or a $20 bill in your pocket was more than just walk-around money.

Admittedly, a dollar just isn't what it once was.

But even today, $5,000 still qualifies as a bit more than pocket change for most of us.

Certainly, it represents a whole lot of dead gophers.

The most intriguing question about the story of the purloined pocket gopher paws, it seemed to this former trapper, was how someone managed to gather up that many paws in the first place.

Either the trapper had found the mother lode of gopher habitat, was very, very good at capturing the critters or had been accumulated the paw collection over the years, making it a very strange savings account indeed.

For readers not members of the hook-and-bullet choir, perhaps an explanation of bounties is in order.

Once upon a time, most Minnesota counties and townships paid a bounties -- cash rewards ---  for encouraging its citizens to rid the countryside of certain critters deemed, rightly or wrongly, as public enemies.

To collect the bounty, the hunter/trapper/landowner was required to offer some kind of proof of the pest's demise-- key animal parts like a tail, the ears, paws, etc.

Years ago, species such as coyotes, foxes, and other predators with an inclination to dine on farmyard fowl or game birds like pheasants carried a bounty on their heads.

Pocket gophers made the wanted list because of their habits of digging up dirt mounds that would break sickle mower blades, create hazards for livestock and otherwise hindering smooth farming operations.

While bounties for most every other critter has long since vanished, pocket gophers and striped gophers still have a price on their heads in many Minnesota counties.

The current going rate in Blue Earth County for a pair of pocket gopher paws is a dollar.

Striped gophers, aka, thirteen-lined ground squirrels (and the Gopher State namesake) will ring up 50 cents.

As I can recall from my own gopher-trapping days a half-century ago, a pocket gopher was worth a quarter, a striped gopher worth a dime.

So while the blood money paid for the critters has increased over the years, it hasn't exactly kept up with the pace of inflation.

Still, even accounting for that, $5,000 worth of gopher feet represents a mountain of dead gophers.

It is apparent the accused thieves weren't too bright.

Certainly the trapper was going to notice his pile of paws was missing.

And cashing in five Gs worth of gopher feet doesn't happen every day and tends to attract attention. The alleged culprits quickly were tracked down and arrested.

Of course, they are innocent until proven guilty.

In Minnesota, stealing property worth more than $1,000 qualifies as a felony so we're not exactly talking about over-time parking.

Depending on how habitual the thieves are, under sentencing guidelines set for thefts of less than $5,000, a tough judge could hand down a sentence of a year and a day in jail accompanied by a hefty fine.

More likely, they'll get a minimal fine and slapped with period of probation.

But they're lucky that there is no law against being stupid.

They'd be facing life sentences.

 

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.