91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

Camas Journal, Winter 1999
by Mary Anne Peine

“It’s true, we love to see ‘em blow up. You know—explode them dogs.” Mark Mason, Varmint Militia

When most of us think of hunting, we think of season and licenses, of big game and bag limits. But not all hunting is governed by these sorts of laws. There is a category of wildlife for which there is no season and no limit. These animals, known as varmints, include such maligned critters as coyotes, prairie dogs, groundhogs, foxes, and crows.

In his new documentary, Varmints, Doug Hawes-Davis takes a fascinating look at the fate of one of these animals in the American West—the prairie dog. Through interviews with ranchers, hunters, environmentalists, agency employees, grassland ecologists, and outfitters, Hawes-Davis artfully unravels the controversy surrounding this unassuming little rodent, leaving viewers to ponder several unanswered questions about the ethics of hunting for sport and our relentless efforts to manipulate the natural world.

Although they are a keystone species in grassland ecosystems, prairie dogs have been the focus of eradication efforts for decades. Ranchers insist that prairie dogs compete with cattle for forage and that livestock can break their legs in prairie dog holes. While ecologists question these claims agriculturalists and hunters use them as justification to poison and shoot prairie dogs with wild abandon. In the plains states, prairie dogs occupy only one million acres, about 2% of their original range.

The most compelling, unbelievable and sometimes humorous moments of the film revolve around the highly controversial issue of prairie dog hunting. Hawes-Davis introduces viewers to several varmint hunters, including Mark Mason, a Colorado hunter who considers himself a member of a “true militia.” Mason continues, “We are called to defend these lands from the invaders, which in this case are the rodents.” He and other shooters assert they are performing a public service by getting rid of these unwanted pests. Mason boasts that he once shot 87 prairie dogs in two hours. Janet Parker of the Varmint Hunters Association states that shooting prairie dogs is no different that catching mice in a trap. She says, “We believe in being humane in the taking of animals. We’re as big an animal lover as anybody else.”

The killing of animals for target practice rather than for meat raises ethical red flags for others interviewed in the film. Bob Luce, of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department says, “...there’s a lot of difference between a sportsman who goes out to hunt a deer or elk that he’s going to take care of and use as his winter meat supply, versus a person who goes out and shoots prairie dogs just for the sport of killing something.” While the film effectively articulates this moral dilemma, it doesn’t shove a resolution down the viewer’s throat. The film allows the facts to speak for themselves and leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions.

All told, VARMINS is a powerful, engaging and surprisingly humorous expose of the strained relations between people and wildlife in the American West. The film has no narrator, but instead allows people on all sides of the issue to speak for themselves. Hawes-Davis has woven together interviews, historical footage, and music brilliantly, leading viewers gracefully through the various dimensions of a complex issue. Just as Southbound, his film about chip mills in the Southeast, continues to make an impact in southern states, the unsettling story told in Varmints is sure to echo across the West for years to come.