Young groundhogs, like the young of any species, are cute. But they quickly grow out of their “cute” stage and before long are spreading their wings and traveling to new locations, where they will burrow holes as entryways to their dens. All too often, these holes are a problem — either in open fields or pastures where they could cause a cow or a horse to break a leg or damage farm machinery, or they are dug in against the foundation of a farm building, thus weakening the structure. For these reasons, farmers don’t much care for them.
The groundhog (Marmota monax), is a rodent, belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. Monax was a Native American name for the woodchuck, which means “the digger.” Their average adult weight is 13 pounds, and their diet consists mostly of grasses and other vegetation, along with the occasional insect or nut. Instead of storing food, groundhogs stuff themselves, increasing their fat deposits to survive the winter months.
When surveying 11 burrows, it was found that the longest burrow was 24 feet and the average amount of earth moved to create the tunnels was about 4 bushels, weighing 384 pounds! These burrows usually have 2 to 5 entrances, providing groundhogs their primary means of escape from predators.
Breeding occurs from early March to mid or late April and the gestation period is 31-32 days. One litter produced annually usually yields 2-6 blind, hairless and helpless young. Once their hair is grown and they can see, they are introduced to the wild, and by late August, the family breaks up, and the young scatter to burrow on their own.
Aside from the popularity of the well-known groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil,” the average woodchuck that occupies the countryside is not very well thought of by most folks. And that is where we as hunters and sportsmen come in as perhaps the best means of controlling their numbers and reducing some of the damage they can do. So what are the regulations regarding hunting this small game animal?
Yes, they are classified as a small game animal. Statewide, there is no limit, and there is no closed season, except during regular firearms deer seasons and hunting them on Sundays is prohibited. Fortunately, they are one of the species that are legal to hunt under the Mentored Youth Hunting Program and, as such, are an ideal “target” animal in that it is easy to comply with the various safety and liability requirements that must be met by the Mentor and the youth. Further, they are one of the species that are legal to hunt under the Mentored Adult Hunting Program.
A first step in hunting groundhogs is securing several locations where they can be hunted and obtaining permission from the various landowners to do so. Farmers will generally welcome someone who wants to help him eliminate these pests, and are usually particularly receptive when a youth hunter is accompanying an adult. When seeking permission to hunt, it would be helpful to ask if there are any chores that the farmer might like your help with to complete, or once permission is granted, return with some homemade cookies or a freshly baked pie! Now you have really “sealed the deal” and may have even set yourself up for an invitation to return during deer season or spring gobbler season!
Choice of weapons is always open to discussion and subject to a variety of answers. I know a very avid bowhunter who would never use a rifle and has taken literally hundreds of groundhogs with his bow over the years. Generally, among rifle shooters, a smaller and higher velocity caliber such as the .223, .22-250 or 220 Swift are ideal. Larger calibers, such as the .308, are also used frequently. Perhaps more important is topping your rifle with the highest quality and highest power optics you can afford, keeping in mind that a variable scope is usually ideal as shot opportunities can be close in, but more often might be several hundred yards.
So, whether you call them groundhogs, woodchucks or whistle pigs, these large ground varmints provide an excellent opportunity to sharpen your skills over the summer months, particularly after farmers have harvested their hay and alfalfa fields. Remember to always positively identify your target — and beyond.