Plains Folk

Flickertail State

I must be moving in the wrong circles. Doesn’t anyone know any more what a flickertail is?

“Flickertail State” is the unofficial nickname of North Dakota, used today mainly by smart-alecks. According to the Secretary of State, the legislature in 1953 voted down a bill to make the moniker official.

Until 1930 the athletic teams of the University of North Dakota were known as the Flickertails. Since then they have been known as the Fighting Sioux, as anyone knows who has been following the logo controversy in the state press. Nevertheless, flickertails appear among the crests embossed on the walls of UND’s liberal arts building, Merrifield Hall, constructed in 1930. The Vessel Register of the U.S. Navy includes a cargo vessel called Flickertail State.

Still, my casual survey of residents of the Peace Garden State (the official nickname), consisting of the single question, “Do you know what a flickertail is?”, gets me blank stares or wild guesses from 80% of respondents. It’s a GOPHER, for pete’s sake. A flickertail gopher, a.k.a. Richardson’s ground squirrel, a.k.a. Spermophilus richardsonii, a.k.a. picket pin (for its habit of stretching upright to look around).

Earlier generations on the northern plains didn’t need to be told what a flickertail was. It figures in the literary works of such authors as Lois Hudson, Wallace Stegner, and W.O. Mitchell, and in the memoirs of Lawrence Welk, who said he earned the money to buy his first accordion from gopher tale bounties. More to the point, the creature haunts the memories of old farm kids across the plains states and prairie provinces.

The greatest memory artist of the plains, William Kurelek of Manitoba, did a wonderfully documentary painting of kids and dogs pursuing gophers, a painting that represents fairly the memories of prairie generations.

Nowadays, though, you can drive across North Dakota in June and not see a single flickertail. There are places in the states and more places in the provinces where they remain common, including many urban environments, where the gophers revive their old reputation as an agricultural pest by mowing down flower plantings and pocking athletic fields.

Memories about gophers are mainly concerned, of course, with killing them. The states and provinces levied bounties for gopher tails, a method of control that perhaps kept the pest numbers down and certainly provided needed pocket change for farm kids. Indeed, one woman in central North Dakota told me she made enough money off gopher tails to buy her father a disk harrow.

This business of gopher hunting is something I have researched—I mean, studied in depth, archives and all—across the prairie provinces, but not in the states. I found that the most complaints of gopher damage to crops came during times when farm conditions created optimal conditions for the animals—the pioneer period, when crops first appeared in the grasslands, and the 1930s, when field abandonment gave plenty of habitat back to the gophers. These also were the times when people most needed the income of bounty money.

In 1921 the schoolchildren of Alberta turned in 2.3 million gophers tales to their teachers. They snared them (the gophers, that is) with twine, shot them with .22s (not exactly cost-effective), trapped them, and most of all, pursued them with buckets of water and dogs.

These days I try not even to run over them on the road. And I always say “Flickertail State,” never “Peace Garden State.” Give my gophers a chance, and see how long your Peace Garden lasts.


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