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Valley Farmer Practices Catch And Release Twice After Tangling With ‘Will’

Mike Williamson displays an unusual catch for these parts, a Marmota monax. Assisted by Steve Holloway, the pair captured this critter in neighboring Lafayette County. – Photo by Jack Gurner

Dubbed ‘Water Valley Phil’ this ground hog spent several weeks at the Williamson Farm before being returned to his happy hunting grounds in neighboring Lafayette County where he was captured. – Photo by Jack Gurner

By Jack Gurner

WATER VALLEY – Some hunters travel the world to find exotic game. But, not local farmer Mike Williamson who has a great hunting story from close to home.

His adventure involves the capture of a Marmota monax (aka ground hog or woodchuck) from a cotton field in neighboring Lafayette County. The hunt began about three weeks ago when eight holes were discovered in the field. Williamson said the holes could pose a threat to farm equipment.

Williamson and Steve Holloway rousted one of the culprits from a burrow and chased the furry fellow around the field. After and extended and exhausting run, Holloway leaped and caught the creature by the back legs.

Mustering the last of his energy, Williamson tossed a hunting coat over the groundhog and stuffed him into the toolbox on the back of his truck.

After returning to Water Valley, Williamson called in various experts to help identify the beast. When he opened the toolbox to give one a look, the groundhog escaped and took refuge in a tractor shed.

For the next two weeks, the furry critter hung out in the shed and around the yard and pasture sometimes taunting Williamson with his defiant stare.

Not willing to admit defeat, Williamson turned to the Internet for help. He discovered that groundhogs are fond of strawberries and cantaloupes. He baited a live trap with strawberries from Larson’s Piggly Wiggly.

The berries did the trick and the groundhog was back in custody. Williamson brought his catch into town where Electric Department Manager Joe Newman declared him a him. Williamson named the groundhog Water Valley Will with apologies to Punxsutawney Phil, the world’s most famous weather-forecasting groundhog.

Grouchy Critters

The experts describe groundhogs as grouchy critters. Richard Rummel, Exotic Species Coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, said they could be difficult.

“We really don’t know enough about them,” Rummel said. “They aren’t game animals. There is no open season on them.”

Most non-game animals in the state are under a regulation known as “species in need of management, Rummel added. “Those are species that are not necessarily endangered or threatened in any way. They really should be studied.”

Groundhogs are currently in northeast Mississippi but are moving sort of south and southwest, according to Rummel, who confirmed their presence in the Oxford area. Yalobusha County is next.

One of the reasons they are showing up in Mississippi is because of an abundance of food in the Northeast states, their natural habitat. There are so many being born they are looking for new territory, said Doug Schwartz, a zookeeper and groundhog trainer at the Staten Island Zoo.

Groundhogs raised in captivity can be socialized and trained relatively easily, according to Schwartz. “However, they’re known for their aggression, so you’re starting from a hard place” he said. “Their natural impulse is to kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly.”

But, even though they are cute, they don’t make good pets and you aren’t supposed to keep them in captivity in Mississippi.

So, Williamson fed him well for a couple of days and set him free. Will is back with his buddies in that Lafayette cotton field.

They can stay as long as they don’t do too much damage, Williamson said.

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