Sierra, July/August 1999
by Hal Herring
“Explode them dawgs,” says the voluble Mark Mason of the Varmint Militia. Mason has a contemptuous anger for “animal cultists” who would question his right to spend his vacations shooting prairie dogs for the pure joy of seeing them made airborne by the force of a .22 slug traveling at 3,000 feet per second.
The measured reports of varmint rifles provide the soundtrack to the opening of this feature-length documentary by Doug Hawes-Davis. VARMINTS examines the plight of the black-tailed prairie dog, once one of the most abundant mammal species of the Great Plains. Accused by ranchers of stealing forage from cattle, the prairie dog has been shot, gassed, and systematically poisoned since the turn of the century. It now occupies less than 2 percent of it’s original range, a figure that biologists say should guarantee it a slot on the list of threatened or endangered species. Yet the poisoning campaigns continue, funded to the tune of one million taxpayer dollars per year in places like Phillips County, Montana.
Hawes-Davis interviews varmint shooters as well as rangeland ecologists, ranchers, American Indians, federal land managers, and agricultural boosters. The film clearly argues that the prairie dog has been persecuted and that its uncertain fate is representative of what’s happening to the entire Great Plains ecosystem after a hundred-year campaign to exterminate every living creature that could interfere with crops and livestock.
The attraction of this film lies in the cast of characters, which includes the photogenic wildlife of the Great Plains, their staunch defenders, and some of the most unsavory humans you would ever chance to meet. It juxtaposes two sides of humanity, one believing in the two-fisted Manifest Destiny obligation to dominate the Earth and the other struggling to present a new, less destructive model that recognizes the right of other animals to occupy the planet. Nowhere in Varmints is it clear that the latter group will prevail. But there is hope: in March the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will consider protecting the black-tailed prairie dog under the Endangered Species Act