The "Sport" of the Prairie Dog Shoot


Wilma, treated with love and kindness, trusts humans and loves to take a walk, sporting her pretty harness. Do you think it is right killing such an animal (or any animal for that matter) just for the 'fun' of killing it?
Wilma in harness

Honing your rifle skills by splattering warm little 3 lb. prairie dogs into the air with a big game rifle is considered THE 'sporting solution' to a dilemma of some western US farmers by a fraternity of single-minded red-neck 'hunters'. These are the same type of 'men' who set out deer corn for months under a hunting blind to attract deer. Then, the night before the season opens, they perform the only physical exertion they will manage during the next 12 hours, that of climbing the ladder, carrying their rifles and a couple 'dozen eggs' (their affectionate term for 12 packs of their favorite brew). Just before dawn, they murder the deer who have learned to trust the too easy, rich bounty of this place.

The morning of the 'dog shoot, Bubba and the boys arrive, in their candy apple red and metallic silver, plushly upholstered, air-conditioned van, complete with big tires, bug lights, darkly tinted windows, winch, rifle racks, chrome running boards and a spare tire on the back with a silver vinyl cover that says in rich RED letters, "Born to be Free"!. Behind this $45,000 air-conditioned rig they tow a trailer, painted to match, that is their 'killing platform'. Two rows of scarlet swivel chairs are bolted to the floor, and a nifty little surrey top lacking only the crimson fringe can be raised to protect these sportsmen from the elements of sun and improbable rain. Bubba and his brotherhood have come to 'save the farmer' from the destruction of his crops by an invader, the prairie dog. The dust rises in two long swirls behind the rig as it heads down the dirt road that leads to their killing field. Armed with an arsenal of weapons, including special soft-nosed bullets an! d mi litary range finders that can hone in on a fruit fly a mile away, the men pile out of the van anxious to explode the little dogs into oblivion. There are good natured guff haws for the one who gets the first, the most and who's target either is blasted higher into the air or into the widest spray of blood and guts.

These little animals were extremely successful in their ecosystem until the late 1800's. The near-extermination of the great American bison herds heralded a change in the ecosystem of the native grasslands. The prairie dog is extremely adaptable and efficient in reproduction. This success coupled with their competition with domestic grazing animals signed the death warrant for these fascinating little 'dogs' of the soil. Angry farmers and ranchers who felt that the prairie dogs were cutting into their profits or jeopardizing the safety of their livestock, tried many methods to eliminate them entirely from the face of the earth. Millions of prairie dogs were exterminated. Methods ranged from massive poisonings, flooding of burrows, trapping, gassing, and shooting. There were seven species of this little animal around the turn of the century. Two are now thought to be extinct and two of the five remaining species are on the endangered list. The prairie dogs that are s! till remaining have been drastically reduced in numbers.

Despite wholesale slaughter, there are some trappers who have seen the endearing qualities in a prairie dog. Mostly by personal experience, they discovered that these qualities made a good pet. A few people today humanely trap prairie dogs alive so they can be enjoyed as loving pets by thousands of families across the United States and beyond much to the ridicule of some prairie dog exterminators. And a few trappers, mainly in the business for the short haul and large profits, have little regard for the prairie dogs themselves, let alone for the safety of their new owners.

Prairie dogs were labeled 'dogs' by the first pioneers that crossed the prairies to the east side of Rocky Mountains. One can imagine the surprise and wonder felt by those early travelers when they encountered areas over 100 miles long inhabited by these little fat puppies that 'barked' upon their approach. Some of these early settlers and travelers also affectionately called them 'sod poodles'.

The name Cynomys from the Greek for 'mouse dog' no doubt because this rodent barks similarly to a dog. Actually, this animal is a squirrel and not a mouse. Explorers Lewis and Clark sent a 'prairy dog' by freight to Thomas Jefferson in 1805 obtained from the land of the Louisiana Purchase. This prairie dog was the black-tailed variety. Expeditions as early as the 16th century by Coronado gave accounts of "this interesting anamal that appears here in infinite numbers" and naturalists that traveled the west found them interesting subjects for their reports.

Prairie dogs are indigenous to many short grass prairies of the western United States, Canada and Mexico as well as some plateaus of the western mountainous regions of the United States. The black-tailed and white-tailed species only slightly overlap territories in their fringe areas in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Prairie dogs are found in the wild in twelve states in the US. Black-tails are found in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. White-tails are found in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and just across the borders of Montana and Idaho. Other animals that usually inhabit the same regions as prairie dogs are buffalo, pronghorn antelope and the black-footed ferret. Prairie dogs normally avoid areas of tall grasses or brush since these promote poor visibility for the prairie dog lookouts. They prefer 'hard pan' flats into which they can dig their burrows with l! ess danger of collapsing than areas with loose soil.

Prairie dogs are diurnal, which means that the bulk of their foraging activity is at dusk and dawn. They spend the larger portion of daylight hours asleep in their burrows below ground. During the summer months they have voracious appetites, consuming vast amounts of food to build up their fat reserve for the winter. White-tails, which come from colder, higher altitudes begin hibernating in October or as soon as the weather is cold. Black-tails have a less complete hibernation than white-tails. They go into a mild torpor on cold days and will come out of their burrows if there is even one nice day. They stay underground for long periods of time during severe weather. Most mating takes place under the ground in their burrows near the end of winter. Their hibernation is not as complete as in true ground squirrels. Prairie dogs consume larger quantities of food as cold weather approaches so that they can accumulate a fat reserve for the 'lean' times during cold weather! . During the winter months, they eat much less, relying on the fat reserv e for energy. As soon as fresh green plants are available the prairie dog has an increase in the appetite.

Prairie dogs are mainly herbivorous, which means that they consume mostly plant materials. They eat low-growing weeds and grasses, their seeds, goose foot, mustard, prickly pear and other plants. They also eat insects including cut worms. According to C. Harm Merriam, 32 prairie dogs will eat as much as one sheep, and 256 will consume as much as one cow. The prairie dog, however, did not compete directly with the wild buffalo. Prairie dogs preferred the broad-leaved weeds that competed directly with the grasses preferred by the buffalo. The prairie dogs ate the weeds, the grasses grew lush and in vast amounts, and the buffalo thrived on them. Some research indicates that the buffalo and prairie dog had a symbiotic relationship. The buffalo compacted the soil and encouraged the growth of forbs, which the prairie dogs loved. As the prairie dogs ate these broad-leafed plants, the growth of the bison's' favorite food, grasses, was fostered.

There is no denying that unchecked prairie dog populations can cause widespread crop destruction and they will effectively compete with domestic livestock for the same grazing areas. It seems futile to state that they were here first. So were the American "Indians". Realistically, several issues are at stake here:

  • Preservation of the species
  • Humane methods of control
  • Impact on ecosystem and other animal and plant species
  • Protection for the farmers and ranchers
  • The prairie dog's existence in the grasslands has itself an impact on the environment. Its burrowing changes the topsoil and encourages different plants that grow in the topsoil. The prairie dog's lifestyle has complex inter-relationships with many plants, animals and insects. Their very existence provides food for many predators, while the unique environment that is created by their lifestyle provides a home and food for a variety of plant and animal life.

    Healthy, large prairie dog populations are not compatible with many human uses of the land, but with proper and humane control, we should be able to co-exist and thus insure the survival of not only the prairie dogs, but those plants and animals that are dependent on the islands of habitat their very existence creates.

    In the early 1800's there were vast colonies of prairie dogs. One such colony or 'town' in West Texas covered an area of 25,000 square miles (an area larger than Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts combined) with over 400,000,000 inhabitants. It was estimated that the total prairie dog population in North America was 4 billion. Man's taste for buffalo hide and meat stimulated the massive slaughter of American bison. Eventually, the buffalo was nearly exterminated in the quest for fashionable robes. Tens of thousands of buffalo carcasses rotted in shameful waste. Bison were replaced with cattle and crops and soon the precocious prairie dog became a competitor with man's wallet. In the name of progress, the health of our nation's grasslands was changing. With the bison gone, the ecology of the plains changed. Man heavily used the land for agriculture and livestock, further changing its ecology. The prairie dog population was blamed for much! of this so the land was relentlessly purged of them by exterminators using a variety of methods: poisoning, traps, nooses, shooting, dynamite, drowning and gassing. Some years more than 125,000 men worked to poison over 20,000,000 acres. The Utah white-tail, for example shrunk to 5% of the original population and in 1972 there were fewer than 40 'towns' left. The groups that remained were no longer contiguous and unable to genetically interact with each other. Then some ranchers found that the removal of the prairie dog encouraged growth of undesirable plants.

    Man's attempt to exterminate them A town of 25,000 prairie dogs will consume the same amount of food as about 100 cows or 800 sheep. It is estimated that a prairie dog eats an amount of grass equal to its own weight every two weeks. Because of their relentless digging efforts and voracious appetites, they have been persecuted by farmers and ranchers until their range and numbers have been drastically reduced. Their entrance holes were considered a hazard to livestock. They chewed grass and surrounding vegetation down to the ground so they would have a clear view of their surroundings. There is more than one side to this story. No one can deny that prairie dogs in large concentrations, with little native food to eat, will damage cultivated crops and directly compete with domestic livestock for the existing vegetation. About 256 prairie dogs will consume as much as 1 cow, and 32 prairie dogs eat as much as one sheep. On the other hand, prairie dogs were on the land first. In areas where they have b! een eliminated, there have been serious detrimental side effects on the ranchers' production of livestock that they did not foresee. Without the prairie dog to curb the spread of certain brush, the undesirable plants have taken hold and halted the growth of the plants needed for the livestock. Research is now underway to determine the economic impact of removal of prairie dogs or co-existence with them. Studies undertaken analyzing the contents of prairie dog stomach indicated that they consume at least 38 different species of plants on a regular basis, with about 59% of them being grasses, the balance brush and weeds.

    Early methods to control prairie dogs had little lasting results. Then in the late 1800's a survey by the US Biological Supply confirmed the vast populations and the slaughter began. Poisons were introduced, and the passage of the federal Animal Damage Control Act of 1931 was the predecessor to a 90% reduction in the prairie dog population of the US. Soon the vast populations dwindled to a small fraction of what they once were. Due to the intense population reductions, remnant colonies were left scattered over a large area with no possible interaction between these colonies. Some genetic variations have occurred in these isolated populations. In 1972 the Environmental Protection Agency banned Compound 1080, which was being widely used in prairie dog eradication.

    In the late 1970's zinc phosphide was used for 'management' of prairie dog populations in some areas. Steam-rolled oats were treated with the chemical. Prior to application with the treated oats, untreated oats were supplied to the prairie dogs several times so they would readily accept the poisoned bait. The oats were broadcast by hand and by airplane. This method proved to be very effective in drastically reducing the populations. State and US land management departments attend the poisoning of prairie dogs. In some counties, if you do not poison the prairie dogs on your property, the county will come in and do it for you and bill you for it on your property taxes.

    In poisoning the prairie dog, the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) whose main diet is prairie dogs was nearly exterminated and is now on the CITES list of endangered animals. It is among the rarest of all American animals. Ferrets who consumed prairie dogs who died from poisoning, were themselves poisoned. Also with their food source disappearing rapidly, the ferrets did not reproduce as before because they did not have food available.

    Some methods today are more humane. A few trappers who frequent prairie dog towns know which exit hole belongs to which entrance. They insert a water hose in one of the two holes and the prairie dogs, which have been conditioned to this type of trapping, immediately run out of the other hole, to be caught by the trapper. Some trappers say that they turn the adults loose and only the babies are kept for resale as pets.

    A company in Colorado uses a truck designed for vacuuming sewer lines to 'vacuum' prairie dogs from their burrows. They recently vacuumed over 50 prairie dogs in less than 2 hours. This system, says the owner, does not hurt the animals. The animals are either relocated or euthanized. The company was attempting also to market the captured prairie dogs as food sources for captive endangered species programs.

    A litter of babies starved to death because this lactating mother was murdered. "So what, they are only animals" is the mentality of someone who got pleasure out of killing her. She was one of hundreds that were illegally poached on a private ranch where we manage the population.

    "When you hit the (little) dogs, they ...(explode)... over an area of three foot square" one 'sportsman' is quoted as having said at the First Annual Top Dog World Championship Prairie Dog Shoot in Nucla, Colorado. Armed with an arsenal of weapons, including special soft-nosed bullets or a 6 foot rifle, complete with a military range finder that could hone in on a prairie dog over a mile away, over 100 entrants gathered to compete for the new 'championship'. Nucla (population 850) is a mining town with a sagging economy. The shoot was planned in an effort to boost local business. There were about 2.5 journalists and 1 animal rights protester per 4 entrants. Some businesses in the town briefly flourished selling prairie dog coffins, and various food items of mock prairie dog meat such as stews, sandwiches and soups. The protesters carried placards reading "Entertainment For The Brain Dead" and verbally taunted hunters. The prairie dogs had no protection, but the hunters were protected against harassment by the protesters under a new state law and winners took home varmint rifles valued at $1500 each.


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