New groundhog eating habits puzzle biologists

Monday, August 13, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:25 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

KANSAS CITY — Wildlife biologists this summer were puzzled when reports started coming in about the bark being stripped off trees high above the ground.

“We were kind of shocked when it turned out to be groundhogs,” said Todd Meese, a wildlife damage biologist in Kansas City for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We haven’t had any calls like it prior.”

Groundhogs climb trees, but they don’t normally cause tree damage. But now they seem especially fond of peeling back the bark on honey locust, elm and ash trees.

“I’ve probably had a couple of calls a week on this in the past months,” Meese said.

He said that it’s not clear why the groundhogs have started stripping back bark but that it could be because they’re trying to lick the tree sap that flows in moist tissue just under the bark.

Groundhogs are vegetarians and normally feed on grasses, clover and flowers. They also will invade gardens to eat fruits such as melons. They’re plentiful in Kansas City’s suburbs, Meese said.

“I’ve had 13 calls today, and six of them were about groundhogs,” Meese said.

The damage they cause to a tree resembles beaver gnawings, he said, only the teeth marks are not as deep.

Beavers usually kill trees when they chew a circle around the base of the tree. But groundhogs do not damage the tree’s outer layers as deeply, and their chewing usually is high off the ground. Those trees usually recover, Meese said. There is little a property owner can do, however, to aid the damaged tree.

The only long-range cure is getting rid of groundhogs. Property owners can call private companies that remove nuisance wildlife, or they can call conservation agencies in Missouri or Kansas for advice.

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