91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“The many faces of prairie dogs in the new west: Documentary looks at both sides of the prairie dog debate”
The Colorado Daily, Volume 106, No. 168, October 27, 1998
by Marty Mapes

You’ll learn more about human nature than you will about prairie dogs at the premiere of a documentary called VARMINTS on Wednesday at the Boulder Theater. Although the film is superficially about these illustrious rodents, it is more about how we humans perceive them.

Filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis talks to a dozen or more ranchers, shooters, ecologists, and biologists about prairie dogs. Each of them has a unique perspective, and most of them have an agenda.

On the one hand, there are people like Mark Mason of the Varmint Militia, who shoots prairie dogs for the sheer fun of it. Militia members use tripods on tables to steady their aim, which allows them to “explode them dogs” from as far away as 600 yards. Sometimes, Mason will call his shot, specifying whether the ‘dog will flip or fly.

On the other hand, there are people like Mary Jennings, of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Cheyenne, Wyo. Jennings appears on camera with a tame prairie dog. She attributes human emotions and neuroses to prairie dog survivors. In short, she is exactly the type of person Mason is trying to get a rise from with his in-your-face, anti-prairie dog stance.

But that’s not to say that Jennings is any more rational than Mason. In fact, few of the people interviewed come across as particularly level-headed, and most of them seem so emotionally involved in the subject that they haven’t really evaluated their own arguments.

Arguments in favor of prairie dogs range from the hard-line (prairie dogs are a keystone ecological species) to the rancher-appeasing (they don’t do any significant harm to cattle). Arguments against prairie dogs range from the hard-line (they’re a nuisance that should be eradicated) to the conscience-appeasing (sooner or later, they’re going to die anyway).

It becomes apparent that, to some degree, the great prairie dog debate is still in the process of becoming history. There is neither enough information to say that prairie dogs are a keystone species nor is there enough to confirm that ranchers suffer financially because of them. There are no clear-cut answers.

Or so Varmints would have us believe, which speaks well to the apparent balance of the documentary. Both sides have about equal time on-screen. There is no narrator, which helps maintain a balance because each side is allowed to speak for itself.

VARMINTS is an engaging, thought-provoking 90 minutes. Wherever you come down on the prairie dog issue, you will find your ideas supported and challenged in this movie.