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Will early spring mean more groundhogs?

Punxsutawney Phil failing to see his shadow this morning may mean an early spring, but what else is known about the underground weather predictors?

The ground dwellers also can add up property damage for Lafayette County residents.

Steve Vassallo and his wife have been residents of Oxford since 1986, but it was only recently he had to have groundhogs removed from his backyard.

“If they weren’t so destructive with their tunnels they wouldn’t be such a nuisance,” Vassallo said.

He did not notice the rodents had taken up residence on his property until he caught one chewing into a plastic container of birdseed on his back porch. So far, he has only had the two removed.

Groundhog populations have been rising in Lafayette County and spreading to the south and west of the state.

The animals are known for feasting on gardens, causing erosion issues and digging tunnels extensively enough to cause foundation issues for homeowners.

“They dig tunnels like you wouldn’t believe,” Vassallo said.

Scott Peyton, collections manager forthe Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, said changes in environmental landscape such as land clearing for timber harvesting and development have most likely attracted the rodent into the state.

A possibility is that they’ve been expanding in general because of land changes over time,” he said. “As more land’s opened up, they’ve expanded their range.”

This year groundhogs have been located as far west as DeSoto County and as far south as Wayne County. However, Oxford reportedly has one of the densest populations in the state.

Numbers growing

Richard Rummel, exotic species program leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said groundhogs have been steadily increasing in numbers for the past two decades.

Rummel said the animals love to burrow into soft, well-drained soil into hillsides, under kudzu vines and steep banks.

Groundhogs can weigh up to 12 pounds and live up to six years. During which time, they dig a complex system of burrows that can measure anywhere from 8 to 66 feet in length.

After working with the USDA Wildlife Services Program dealing with animal damage, Mike Merchant started Wildlife Resolutions in 2009. He now offers services to help remove rodents and other animals from private property.

Merchant was first notified of a groundhog in Lee County in 2004. He used to receive phone calls for groundhogs less than five times per year, but now that number has steadily grown to 30 to 35 per year since 2009.

Merchant said Mississippi was not even listed as groundhog range in the 1990s.

More popular removal requests Merchant receives include squirrels, raccoons and skunks, but groundhogs currently make up roughly 15 to 20 percent of calls.

Vassallo called Merchant to remove the rodents after the animals had attempted to destroy his property.

Merchant traps, removes and relocates the groundhogs. He baits live traps with pieces of cantaloupes to draw them in.

After capture, the animals are released on a designated site 20 miles outside of town. The catch-and-release program is lawful and humane.

Even with the history he has with the rodents, Merchant remains on good terms with the groundhogs of Lafayette County. However, he is skeptic of Punxsutawney Phil’s seasonal predictions.

“I guess we’ll just see what happens,” Merchant said.