91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

Woodchuck Cafe, Fall 2002
by Arthur Stamoulis

VARMINTS is a disturbing 91-minute look at people’s attitudes towards prairie dogs. From environmentalists looking to protect them, to government agents looking to manage them, to land owners looking to control them, to sportsmen looking to shoot them, this documentary covers all the bases.

As the film well demonstrates, much of the uproar over prairie dogs really has to do with their relationship to cows. Some ranchers claim domestic animals and livestock can injure themselves by accidentally stepping into prairie dogs burrows, possibly even causing their death. Even worse, they claim, the dogs eat up valuable grasses that their cattle could be grazing on.

“My cattle and I like to eat,” sums up one landowner featured in the film. She went so far as trying to introduce “plague” into the prairie dog town on her property, explaining, “I don’t think anything good about ‘em. They’re just simply terrible, and I think we should get help getting rid of them.”
Local, state and federal government agencies have helped ranchers rid their land of prairie dogs, spending unknown millions of dollars on poisoning the animals since the 1930s. The justification always cited was increasing grazing material for cattle.

But some environmental scientists have challenged that claim, pointing to two basic observations: the fact that bison had thrived where prairie dogs lived for thousands of years, and the fact that, on any given ranch, the cattle seem to prefer grazing in prairie dog towns more than outside of them.
These scientists argue that when prairie dogs “mow” vegetation in their area, they help new, younger grasses come in thicker which are easier for bison and cattle to digest than taller, dried-out grass. According to them, prairie dog towns do not really compete with cattle grazing at all.

Environmentalists also consider prairie dogs to be a “keystone” species, whose survival is beneficial for a good number of other species. Their holes provide habitat for black-footed ferrets, swift fox, mountain plover and burrowing owls. Prairie dogs serve as prey for large predators such as hawks, eagles, coyotes and badgers. They also help alter the soil composition, which leads to an increase in plant diversity within their towns. “If you lose the prairie dog, the whole ecosystem will collapse, much like an arch,” argues one scientist in the film.

Still, a good number of ranchers consider prairie dogs to be a nuisance, and encourage any and all efforts to wipe them out. This includes sport hunting, in which hunters literally explode the prairie dogs from hundreds of yards away using high-powered sniper rifles. Typically, not enough of the animal is left behind after being hit to use for meat, pelts or even trophies, so this is truly an activity only for the sport of it. The footage in this section of men gleefully “flipping,” “blowing up” and mocking dead prairie dogs is extremely gory, and after several minutes, becomes almost gratuitous.

A quote from one of the hunters in this segment, Mark Manson of the Varmint Militia, stands out for its ironic arrogance: “It all boils down to the fact that they [‘the animal cultists,’ or environmentalists] want everyone eating tofu. They start by saying, ‘Don’t kill. You’re just doing this for the bloodlust.’ We’re just doing this because we love to see blood. Well, it’s true. We love to see them blow up. You know? Explode them dogs! ... Animals don’t have any rights. Just look at what they do to each other.”