91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“VARMINTS documents prairie dog controversy - documentary has diverse, mix of opinions”
The Boulder Camera
by Jason Hickman

BOULDER - The title of the film is VARMINTS, but that’s just one of the terms applied to the Cynomys ludovcianus, more commonly known as the prairie dog.

In the documentary premiering Wednesday at the Boulder Theatre, the black-tailed prairie dog is called everything from nuisance, agricultural pest, rodent, bandit, invader, and scum of the earth, to a vanishing, vital element of the prairie eco-system.

Filmed last fall by the Missoula, Mont.-based High Plains Films, the 91-minute work spans several western states and a range of opinions about the prairie dog.

Nervous ranchers and farmers spin fearful anecdotes about the damage prairie dogs can inflict on their livelihood, while wildlife biologists cite studies showing exactly the opposite.

Look for Boulder’s Jasper Carlton, an attorney with the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, as one of the colorful blend of interviewees. Intermixed are the jarring scenes of a band of exuberant shooters, whose remarkable enthusiasm for prairie dog hunting is matched by their disdain for what Denver’s Mark Mason calls “animal cultists.”

Mason, head of the “Varmint Militia” and member of the Wildlife Hunters Association of Colorado, said he’ll be at Wednesday’s showing “with a flak jacket on.”

After being zealously pestered and having his equipment sabotaged at hunts by protesters, Mason said he has been victimized by a misinformed public.

“These people, because they’re good-intentioned, are getting portrayed as saviors—they’re just criminals,” he said. “Our group is still within the law. When they come to protest, we let them because that’s the American way, but when they trespass we ask the officers to arrest them.”

Production assistant Jennifer Ferenstein said the film’s range of perspectives is one of its main values.

“There are so many diverse opinions and misperceptions, and it’s not just an ecological issue. It’s a political and social issue as well,” she said. “We tried really hard not to have an agenda in any of our interviews. We asked the same questions and presented it even handedly with no narration—nobody is telling you what to think.”

Still, it seems director Doug Hawes-Davis had a tough time finding a reasonable prairie dog opponent to offset an increasingly strong case for preservation of the animals.

“It digs holes,” a South Dakota Department of Agriculture official argued. “You walk through there, you break your leg, or sprain your ankle.”

Others don’t bother with science or reason, simply reveling in the sport of shooting prairie dogs.

“It’s just nice and relaxing when you can appreciate God’s handiwork out here,” said an elderly woman from Indian after a day spent bagging 43 of the animals.

Those perspectives, albeit darkly humorous on occasion, are a vital part of the issue, Ferenstein said.

“It’s not our intent to make fun of anybody or make light of anybody’s opinions,” she said. “We wanted to represent them and get those viewpoints on the table. If you don’t know what everybody’s thinking it’s very hard to come to solutions—this is a little slice of America.”

Scott Seville, an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Wyoming’s Casper College, appears in the film explaining the importance of prairie dogs to other grassland animal species. Though controversy about the extermination of the animals and their proposed inclusion on the endangered species list is escalating beyond high-profile urban areas like Boulder County into rural regions of the West, Seville resisted entering the fray.

“[The film makers] kept trying to get me to take a position,” he recalled. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned—and I’ve lived in Wyoming a long time—there are a lot of viewpoints and nobody’s completely right. There’s a little truth in everything people say and there are no easy answers.”