91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“New film looks at prairie dog controversy inside and out”
Missoulian, November 26, 1998
by Daryl Gadbow

Lots of prairie dogs are blown to smithereens on screen in Varmints, a new documentary movie by Missoula filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis.

The prairie dog explosions are the result of being shot by high-powered rifles wielded by varmint hunters like Mark Mason of the Varmint Militia of Denver.

There also are scenes of cute and cuddly prairie dogs frolicking on their mounds and being gently handled like a pet by a friendly human. There are scenes of ornery old Montana ranchers cussing the prairie dog. Plus scenes of animal rights activists and “grassland ecologists” praising the rodents.

In other words, all sides of the prairie dog controversy are represented in this extremely thorough examination of the subject.

A debut screening of Varmints is scheduled Wednesday, Dec. 2 [1998] at 7 p.m. in the University of Montana’s Urey Lecture Hall. There will be an opportunity after the 90-minute film to meet Hawes-Davis and his production team. Admission is $3.

High Plains Films, which produced Varmints as a project of the Missoula-based Ecology Center, offers this warning about the film: “Due to the graphic footage of prairie dog shooting, Varmints may not be appropriate for children under the age of 12. Parental discretion is advised.”

There are some bloody, ugly prairie dog carcasses, as well as some crude representatives of the sport of hunting, on display in the film, which might sway some viewers’ sentiments.

But to be fair, Hawes-Davis has found a wide range of real-life characters to present the multifaceted debate on whether the prairie dog is a growing agricultural pest in the West, or whether it is being wiped out to the point of extinction and in dire need of protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

An American Indian from Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Reservation talks about the significance of prairie dogs to the culture of his ancestors. Various federal agency land managers discuss the roles the government has played in the history of prairie dogs. The hunters, including some articulate women involved in the sport of varmint shooting, have their say. The ranchers grouse about how prairie dogs are “taking over.”

“I don’t have nothing good to say about them,” growls one elderly female rancher. “They’re terrible. They think they’re extinct. They aren’t extinct when there’s millions of them.”

An especially interesting aspect of the film is the historical footage shot during the homestead era of the Great Plains, when government agents conducted an extensive prairie dog eradication program.

Knowledgeable ecologists explain the prairie dog’s role as a “keystone species” on the plains, which is to provide habitat for other species.

“Varmints documents the intertwined and conflicting perspectives of cowboy mythology, animal rights, property rights, varmint hunting, ecology, and politics,” according to a High Plains Films news release.

Montana is featured in much of the film, which will make you think a little more deeply about prairie dogs, no matter which side of the controversy you think you’re on.

A previous film by Hawes-Davis, Southbound, about the exodus of timber companies to the South, was featured by Missoula’s International Wildlife Film Festival in 1997.