91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“VARMINTS: Graphic documentary on prairie dog shooters is provocative and disturbing”
The Tributary, January 1999
by Betsy Gaines

Considering the long history of the prairie dog in the settling of the American West, these critters have had a hell of a time. Abhorred for a century and viewed as varmints, the prairie dog has been the target of a no hold barred federal killing campaign that has, and still does, take place on a local, regional and even national level. But the prairie dog is finally gaining a bit of popularity and credit from scientific and environmental communities for being perhaps the most important species in the High Plains. Despite this recognition, old grudges have thrown the prairie dog into the middle of a rancorous debate involving agribusiness, federal agency obstinancy, ecology, ethics, economics, property rights and “varmint” hunting.

The prairie dog controversy is detailed in a new film heading for Bozeman in January. Varmints chronicles the history and the present politics of the prairie dog. The film cobbles together a series of interviews with the many sides of the prairie dog debate. The results are horrifying, fascinating and darkly hilarious. Aside from the scientific, environmental, bureaucratic and ranching perspectives, Varmints also delves into the shocking world of the “varmint hunter.”

Although not the biggest factor in population decrease, with all the misery that prairie dogs have been put through, varmint hunters seem to cheerfully add insult to injury. Varmints is filled with graphic footage of exploding prairie dogs and interviews with some truly sordid characters. One particularly frenzied shooter plays with the body of a bloody dog, demonstrating how a lamp could be crafted “down out of its butt, holding a miniature beer can. You flick it’s nose and the light comes on….”

Another avid hunter, a woman, explains that as more and more women become varmint shooters, they begin to regard varmint rifles as “jewelry.” “We get so excited when someone brings in a new gun. It’s got to be a good shooter, but we also like it to look pretty.” Deer rifles aren’t accurate enough for prairie dogs at long distances, so varmint rifles are high-powered and extremely accurate, for precision “dog popping.”

VARMINTS is provocative and disturbing no matter how you perceive the prairie dog’s plight. It carefully shows all sides of the debate but certainly catches the flaws in logic of the varmint hunters: as the backbone species of the plains, prairie dog extinction will be the death warrant for many other species that depend on it for survival. Varmints is well worth seeing, in particular as a morality tale concerning humanity’s responsibility to the environment.

VARMINTS is the sixth documentary by High Plains Films, a Montana-based production team specializing in wildlife and natural resource issues. High Plains Films has won numerous awards, and their films have been screened at film festivals and theaters nationwide. Other titles from High Plains Films include Southbound (1995) and The Paper Colony (1996).