91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“MNA Hosts Prairie Dog Video”
Arizona Daily Sun, December 13, 1999
by Dan Frazier

Varmints is a new documentary from High Plains Films, an independent production company based in Montana. This 91-minute epic will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the current environmental controversy surrounding the prairie dog.

You will learn for instance that the prairie dog - that cute little creature we in Flagstaff often see scampering in and out of holes in fields and along roadsides - has long been considered on eof the leading pests in the West. We are shown clips of educational films made about 1915 by the U.S. Biological Survey to show how the government was working to eradicate prairie dogs. According to the government, prairie dogs were “robbing” farmers of their crops and cattle of their forage, and it was essential that prairie dogs be poisoned.

The prairie dog is still widely considered a pest. Today, however, some landowners trying to control prairie dogs prefer to allow hunters with high-powered rifles to come onto their property to kill the “varmints” for sport.

Meanwhile, those who study prairie dogs are arguing that the killing of prairie dogs may soon threaten the very survival of the species. Already, the range of the prairie dog has been reduced to a mere 2 percent of its former range.

Some researchers contend that prairie dogs are hardly the pests many people imagine them to be. It turns out that the claim that prairie dogs compete with cattle for grass may be unfounded. It’s a known fact that cattle actually prefer grazing on the shorter grass found near prairie dog colonies. The research suggests that though this grass is shorter, it has a higher than average nutritional value and may support cattle grazing just as well as grass that has not been fertilized and otherwise manipulated by prairie dogs.

Varmints contains a lot of video images of prairie dogs in their natural habitat and the video tells us quite a bit about the habits of prairie dogs. We are told, for instance, that prairie dogs have their own language and that they use different sounds to identify different types of predators, including man.

But the real stars of the video are the people - the people trying to protect prairie dogs, and, especially, the people trying to destroy prairie dogs.

Among the most memorable images in this documentary are those of grown men and women shooting at prairie dogs, or talking about why they do it. In one shot, a hunter holds up a dead prairie dogs he has shot and, petting the dog’s head, says that this is a “good dog.” He goes on to explain in a jovial manner how he would like to have the animal mounted in a standing pose, rig it with a lightbulb and lampshade, glue a tiny beer can into the poor animal’s outstretched paw, and thereby make his home a little cozier.

Such unguarded moments occur repeatedly throughout the video, invariably making hunters and prairie-dog haters look like uninformed bloodlusting imbeciles. Those who live to destroy prairie dogs are clearly the real “varmints.” One wonders what approach documentary filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis used to persuade these hunters to let their guard down before his camera. The hunters act as if the camera crew must be in perfect agreement with all the twisted theories and half-baked ideas that motivate them to drive hundreds of miles in order to blast the furry squirrel-like creatures to smithereens.

Overall Varmints is a very enlightening video. It is well-worth seeing. It might not make you cry, but it just might make you think. Surprisingly, it might even make you laugh. In one funny scene, an elderly couple sits outside their trailer home in lawn chairs. As the man and his wife swat at flies and mosquitoes, the man attempts to defend the killing of prairie dogs. As he stands up to scratch his butt, he explains that they (the prairie dogs) have lots of fleas and ticks. In fact, prairie dogs clean and groom themselves more often than many humans.

Later the man’s wife, explaining the joys of shooting prairie dogs, notes how nice it is to get out into “God’s great country.” She says this with a straight face, as if she has not even an inkling that prairie dogs were perhaps created by God. Could it be that she thinks God created prairie dogs for target practice? Maybe she just doesn’t think.