Exotic no more: Groundhogs an increasing presence in region

By Errol Castens / NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

Given that Punxsutawney Phil lives in Pennsylvania and Wiarton Willie resides in Ontario, members of Marmota monax – groundhogs to most of us – have long seemed an exotic species to Mississippians.
Groundhogs, however, are also found in several counties of Northeast Mississippi.
“They’re not indigenous to this area, but their common range comes as far as Tennessee and North Alabama,” said Daryl Jones, the coordinator of the Natural Resource Enterprises Program at Mississippi State University. “It’s entirely possible for them to show up in northern counties of Mississippi.”
The most famous, Punxsutawney Phil, will make his annual winter weather forecast on Wednesday, drawing attention to the creatures also known as woodchucks, marmots, land beavers and even whistle pigs for their distinctive sound.
Participants on the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks web forum have reported several sightings, and the beaver-like critters – without the wide tail – have been sighted in the city limits of Oxford and Abbeville.
“We do have a population,” confirmed Scott Baker, an MDWFP wildlife biologist. A couple of years ago, he added, “We had a report of a sighting as far south as Trace State Park. If their populations are increasing, it’s because all their needs are being met for everyday survival – food, water, space and cover.”
At typical adult weights of 5 to 13 pounds, groundhogs are the largest members of the squirrel family. They are herbivores and hibernate several months each winter. Woodchucks don’t chuck wood, one current comedic commercial notwithstanding, but they do move prodigious amounts of earth to create their burrows several feet underground.
Groundhogs are a threat to humans only if they are cornered or if they have rabies. While some people might thus see the large rodents as cute, folks who grow vegetables often take a less charitable view.
“Groundhogs are the bane of many a gardener,” states animals.nationalgeographic.com. “They can decimate a plot while voraciously feeding during the summer and fall seasons.”
It’s no wonder that on vegetable-growing forums, countermeasures from electric fences to watchdogs are a favorite topic. Some gardeners even quite literally savor the sweet flavor of revenge.
Responding to a question about how best to dispatch a humanely trapped groundhog, one poster on gardenweb.com suggested, “If you ask around you might find someone willing to take them off your hands. They’re mighty good eating.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@journalinc.com.