91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“Open Season on Varmints: For Saving Endangered Prairie Dogs, It’s the Eleventh Hour”
E Magazine, July 2004
by Fred Durso, Jr. and Jim Motavalli

“This is really what it’s all about,” Dan said. “I love being out here. Open, wild country. Fresh, clean air.”
So what was Dan doing? Hiking in the Sierras? Following the Appalachian Trail through Maine? Hell no, he was shooting prairie dogs in the Wyoming grasslands, and his story was told at

“Seventy yards out in the grassland, a small brown creature popped out of the ground and chirped a message to the rest of its ‘town.’ Brian grinned wide, gave a thumbs up to Dan, and the two unloaded their gear. The hunt was on. Black-tailed prairie dogs are legally classified as varmints. Ranchers refer to them by names less kind, but hunters look upon them as a welcome summer hunting opportunity… Brian’s rifle of choice is a Winchester Model 70 Heavy Varmint, originally a .223 bought specifically to be reworked for varmint shooting… ‘My favorite location used to be South Dakota,’ Brian said. ‘But it is getting harder to find places to shoot. I enjoyed Wyoming on the last trip. The serenity was really nice.’”

In the Jim Jamrusch film Dead Man, a train runs through a prairie landscape in the 19th century West. Passengers suddenly grab their rifles and lunge for the windows, shooting bision. The scene is real enough. Early settlers remarked on “plains that were black and appeared as if in motion” with the herds of bison, estimated to number 60 million. Millions of bison were shot from trains or killed for the fur trade, whose reach extended into Europe. The killing stopped in the 1880s, when only a few animals remained.

The prairie dog may soon go the way of the bison. Prairie dogs once occupied 700 million acres throughout the Great Plains. Poisoning campaigns on most Western rangelands between 1920 and 1970 cut that range to two percent of what it had been historically.

There are five species of prairie dog, and all of them are native to North America. Their situation can best be described as perilous, even with some present or pending protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The status of white-tailed dogs is under federal review. Black-tailed dogs are candidates for listing. The Utah prairie dog is classified as “threatened,” and the Mexican as “endangered.” The Gunnison’s lacks all protection.

The hunt is still on. In Colorado, black-tailed prairie dogs are classified as a “destructive rodent pest.” Shooting is banned on federal land but permitted on state and private lands. Some 200,000 were shot in 2002. In Wyoming, though they are classified as a “species of special concern,” there are absolutely no restrictions on shooting prairie dogs.

Calling themselves “varmint militia,” hunters use prairie dogs as target practice, and the sale of high-powered rifles and ammunition has become a lucrative source of revenue for gunmakers and retail vendors.

In Arizona, Gunnison’s prairie dog populations have declined 98 percent, because of historic and current poisoning and shooting, sylvatic plague (which results in near 100 percent mortality) and habitat destruction.

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission banned recreational shooting of black-tailed prairie dogs, but it waited until they were wiped out to take action. For most prairie dogs, it’s still open season. The death tally at the eighth Annual Prairie Dog Extravaganza in North Dakota was 4,912, shot in a six-hour competition by 70 participants. According to one account, a local bar proudly displays charts tracking the kills from prairie dog “hunts,” and the total as of June 2000 was 23,895.

A few protective measures have been taken to save remnant and isolated prairie dog populations, with varying degrees of success. According to the Center for Native Ecosystems (CNE), Utah has adopted seasonal shooting restrictions on white-tailed prairie dogs on public lands, Montana banned shooting on federal lands, and both the Rocky Mountain Region of the Forest Service and the state of Utah added the white-tailed to “Sensitive Species” lists. Such communities as Boulder and Fort Collins, Colorado are setting aside thousands of acres for prairie dog colonies. Other dog towns are being preserved in Wind Cave National Park, Devil’s Tower National Monument and in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Reserve in Texas. A colony of Gunnison’s prairie dogs is also protected in Santa Fe, New Mexico’s municipal park. Prairie dogs delight children in a colony imported to the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Environmental groups, including CNE, had to take the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to court to protect the white-tailed prairie dog, and a March court ruling forces the federal agency to respond to citizens’ petitions demanding ESA listing by October of this year.

Nicole Rosmarino, endangered species director at Forest Guardians, says starkly, “I firmly believe that without the ESA, prairie dogs would now be extinct in Utah. It’s the most effective tool for protecting them.” Even with some protections, a hunter’s annual take in Utah can total 6,000, and prairie dog populations in that state are at the lowest level since the mid-1990s.

Prairie dog support groups are trying to relocate whole colonies of the animals to get them away from hunters and out of the path of development, but it’s a slow process. “We’re in the eleventh hour for the prairie dog,” says David Crawford, executive director of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense. “ESA listings are crucial, but getting the black-tailed listed is still a long way off.” USFWS determined in 2000 that listing the black-tailed prairie dog was “warranted,” but has taken no further action. Meanwhile, according to Lindsey Sterling of the Prairie Dog Coalition, despite its ESA candidate status “thousands of black-tailed deaths have occurred as a result of government-approved and often taxpayer-subsidized shooting, poisoning and bulldozing.”

Under President Bush, species listing has ground to a halt, for prairie dogs and many other animals. An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity says that the Bush administration has failed to list a single species under the act, except when under court order to do so. Some 65 species were listed under Clinton and 58 under Bush’s father. Even under President Reagan, 32 species were listed. Defenders of Wildlife sees “a clear pattern of illegal acts, rigged science and flagrant disregard of court orders” in the Bush administration’s ESA policy. Meanwhile, Republican House Resources Committee Chairperson Richard Pombo (R-CA) praises Bush for “modernizing” the ESA.

As the coalition fighting for prairie dogs points out, black-footed ferrets depend on the social rodents for food and on their burrows for shelter (see sidebar). Prairie dogs also provide food for the swift fox, the coyote, weasels, snakes, badgers, hawks and golden eagles as well as crucial habitat for many other native plants and animals.

Are prairie dogs really “varmints” that are best removed from the environment? According to the book Wild Neighbors, published by the Humane Society of the U.S., “recent studies suggest that we have overlooked the critical role [prairie dog and ground squirrel populations] may play in encouraging biological diversity, and have overestimated the impact they have on our own economic interests.”

Back to “Regardless of what gun you choose, prairie dogs offer a fun opportunity for popping some caps well outside of the restraint and conformity of a firing range…‘Early in the year is a good time to hunt,’ says Tim Byer, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service. ‘Because prairie dog pups are up, and they are less educated and easier shooting.’”

So what’s so bad about these “pests”? Ranchers say they eat animal forage and endanger the legs of livestock with their tunnels. Erin Robertson, a CNE staff biologist, says antipathy to prairie dogs increased during World War I, when the push was on to increase beef production. “It was your patriotic duty to eradicate prairie dogs from your property,” she says. “There was a massive government effort that lasted until the 1930s.”

A 1927 Colorado law (still on the books) says that prairie dogs constitute “such a grave and immediate menace to the agricultural, horticultural and livestock industries of the state that large numbers of the inhabitants engaged in such industries in the localities so infested are in great and immediate danger of being impoverished and reduced to want by the destruction of their crops.” But much of the original research on the issue was flawed, and Robertson says there is no evidence correlating weight loss in cattle with the presence of prairie dogs. “There are misconceptions about cattle competing with prairie dogs for vegetation, and these misconceptions continue today,” she says.

Sterling adds, “The myth that cattle break legs in prairie dog holes is just that: myth. After years of asking ranchers this question, we have found not one example.”

But attitudes persist. “I don’t have nothing good to say about [prairie dogs],” says an elderly female rancher in the acclaimed 1998 film Varmints by Douglas Hawes-Davis. “They’re terrible. They [environmentalists] think they’re extinct. They aren’t extinct when there’s millions of them.” There were millions of them, and there still are healthy remnant populations, but there’s ample evidence that concerted campaigns will wipe them out from a given region.

VARMINTS is a graphic film, with close-up footage of exploding prairie dogs set to a rocking score. “Explode them dawgs,” says the voluble Mark Mason of the Varmint Militia, who spends his vacations shooting prairie dogs for the pure joy of seeing them airborne by the force of a .22-caliber bullet. A poet of prairie dog shooting, Mason is given to saying such things as, “You can tell when you hit ‘em in the head, because their legs kick.” Mason attended the film’s premier, where he was asked if the movie (which offers ample commentary on prairie dog biology and conservation, as well as the hunters at work) would change his views. “Sure,” he said. “I’ll probably load a heavier-grained bullet.”

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E; FRED DURSO, JR. is an intern at E.