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Montana X-treme
Rifle Magazine
March - April 2000
Volume 32, Number 2
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 188
On the cover...
Ross is holding a Westley Richard's, Deeley & Edge
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Through the 8x binocular I saw my friend’s head jerk slightly, then I heard the pop of his .220 Swift. Beside him several other shooters were working their .223s and .22-250 Remingtons. One fellow was even shooting a .22 PPC Dakota Model 76 varminter. They were all still firing north, so I continued walking west toward the far corner of the dog town, down into a low wash of old river channel, then along it to a cottonwood that must have been a sapling when the mountain men floated furs to this confluence of rivers in western South Dakota.

Either it had been raining a lot or this colony hadn’t been shot the previous year or two. The grass was unusually tall. Prairie dogs would disappear in it as they foraged and scampered from burrow to burrow. Old, established towns are more gray than green, acres of dirt sparsely clothed in short, well-cropped annual weeds interrupted by wide mounds of fresh dirt marking entrances to subterranean dens. In this town, burrow entrances were small, hard to see. It appeared hardly a prairie dog colony at all, yet if you watched long enough you noticed heads popping up and down everywhere in the grass. The town was growing like a Las Vegas suburb.

From my knees I slowly rose beside the cottonwood until I could see the tawny heads of curious rodents through the grass. They stood at attention, staring at my obscured form. I sat against the deeply fissured bark and propped my elbows inside my knees. The closest dog was less than 70 yards away, but only the top of its head showed above an ancient drift of river sand. Thirty yards beyond, the ground sloped higher and a dozen prairie dogs foraged, dug and scurried.

I pushed down on the silky steel lever beneath the single-shot’s trigger guard and watched the breechblock drop silently away, exposing the small, dark circle of chamber. I fished a tiny .222 Remington cartridge from my shirt pocket, laid it in the groove atop the breechblock and tilted the darkly marbled walnut butt upward. The bright gold cartridge nestled into the dark cavity with a satiny “shlick.” I pulled the cocking lever back toward the trigger guard until it locked with a subtle, solid “tock,” then slowly raised the petite Dakota Model 10.

The Leupold duplex crosshair waved past one, two, a half-dozen half-grown rodents, then wavered on a fat old-timer sitting solidly on its butt. I concentrated on the sight picture, let out half a breath and began the trigger squeeze, gratified when the bark of the little rifle surprised me. I heard the “whock” of the hit.

For the next hour I hunched, duck walked and crawled about the edges of that rodent colony, selecting targets, estimating ranges, shooting from the steadiest field positions possible - prone, sitting, kneeling, standing. Often the 50-grain Winchester bullets sailed wide, but not by much, and more often they struck, bolstering my confidence, honing my hunting marksmanship and tallying one more reason for the ranch owner not to lay poison to control his vermin problem.

Given an adequate harvest by our small group of shooters, this sprawling dog town would be reduced to a tolerable level for another season or two during which the cattleman could largely ignore it. Meanwhile the tunneling squirrels would rebuild their population, providing protein for coyotes, swift foxes, badgers, ferruginous hawks, golden eagles and other birds of prey. Their dens would create nesting sites for burrowing owls, cottontails, rattlesnakes and American toads. Even their closely cropped lawns would serve as display stages for mating sharp-tailed grouse. Mallards, pintails, meadowlarks, chestnut-collared longspurs, horned larks, pronghorns, mule deer and even the ranch cattle would forage eagerly on the sweet new growth, benefiting from concentrated nutrients not found it mature vegetation. Though most cattlemen doubt it, scientific studies have shown that, at least in the studied towns, cattle grow fatter on prairie dog towns than on regular grasslands, something to do with increased protein in the fresh sprouts.

While my companions continued to snipe long-range varmints with traditional heavy-barreled varmint rifles fired off Bull’s Bags and Harris bipods, I progressed to the far corners of the town testing myself more than my rifle. This was my idea. The more I shot the more proficient I became until I knew the measure of distance, the pace of my heart, the crisp breaking point of the trigger, the delightful balance of the little rifle. Gradually my hits outpaced misses until I was confidently knocking off rodents at 100 yards offhand, 200 yards from the sit. By the time I hiked back to the Suburban for more ammunition, I was as comfortable with the rifle as is a pitcher with his arm.

This atypical style of varmint shooting has appealed to me for years. Perhaps it is my impatience. More likely it is my nature to roam, find and stalk the game that pulls me from a solid rest toward catch-as-catch-can field shooting. I’m sure I shoot fewer varmints this way, but I don’t mind. Picking off targets with grim repetition from a bench or hood offers minimal training for typical hunting work. It might be a more efficient method for reducing rodent populations, but these days there seem to be more than enough shooters to keep ground squirrels in check.

In fact many shooters are finding older prairie dog towns sharply narrowed, often exterminated by a combination of over-shooting and poison. Last summer two Dakota ranchers gave me permission to hunt but noted with considerable satisfaction that they didn’t think I’d find much. Sadly, they were right. Their poison had worked all too well. A Kansas cattleman allowed as how he used to have a big town down by the river, but he hadn’t seen a dog for years. Yes, he had done some poisoning for several seasons. He couldn’t interest enough shooters to keep the vermin from spreading, so what else could he do?

Low cattle prices and tight margins have driven ranchers to a cruel efficiency. Such is the brutal nature of an economy locked into the narrowest philosophy of “bottom line.” Where previous generations were satisfied to take from the land what they needed and a tad more for a few luxuries, we are now forced by Madison Avenue propaganda and corporate competition to wring every last capital gain from the soil and convert it to dividends and electronic toys that re-create the real world we’ve sold out from under ourselves. Have you tried the new computer hunting games yet?

This pernicious appetite for maximum profit has sucked the fudge factor from the land, hacked the resilience out of Nature, screwed it down hard until there is no room for creatures that don’t easily convert to dollars. A few springs back I hunted with an outfitter who charged a good price to guide shooters to ground squirrels on a number of Colorado ranches, none of which looked particularly overrun with vermin, some of which appeared slicked clean by cattle, nothing but old dog mounds grown over with vegetation. Yet he glassed these hard. “Just a few more and we’ll have this place cleaned out,” he bragged. He meant the prairie dogs.

Considering the price of cattle these days against the daily rate he was pocketing from his varmint shooters, it’s a wonder he didn’t see his accounting error. At some point we are going to have to accept the reality that we’ve fulfilled Genesis, carried out Manifest Destiny. It is no longer us against them. If we persist in this nineteenth century philosophy, we’ll soon awaken to an awfully boring world of cows, corn and concrete.

Concurrently, anti-hunting forces use us against ourselves. The image of gun-nuts assassinating innocent prairie dogs with high-tech rifles plays well in Peoria, even better in Los Angeles. And Angelinos in conjunction with Madison Avenue pretty much steer social values, or non-values. Today’s typical teenager isn’t likely to relate to the plight of an isolated Wyoming rancher who’s raising cattle that “have the same rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as any other citizen.” Like it or not, that is what the kids are being told, and more and more of them are buying it. If you think the current push to list the black-tailed prairie dog as a threatened species is a worry, wait until the next generation comes to power.

So where does that leave varmint shooters? Certainly we are still a needed and useful tool in grassland and crop management. Despite what animal rightists claim, irrigated alfalfa fields are still infested with rodents, and pastures can become overrun with prairie dogs. Just as homeowners have the right to kill filthy, destructive, trespassing mice and Norway rats, ranchers and farmers have the right to kill destructive native rodents when they jeopardize business and property. Nevertheless, it might be well past time for landowners and their shooting allies to project an image of compassion and restraint. While noting that various varmints do negatively impact profits and must be controlled, we must also acknowledge their value to the land and the importance of maintaining them in viable numbers. Then we must show how regulated hunting can contribute to the welfare of both rodents and ranchers, not to mention organic vegetable farmers who supply vegetarians with their self-righteous meals. I’ll bet you won’t find many prairie dogs or woodchucks in carrot or cabbage patches.

Toward this end I have modified my varmint shooting into what might be called “sustainable varminting.” Instead of compiling big kills, I concentrate on honing my shooting and hunting skills while controlling, not wiping out, growing rodent populations. This enables me to use a variety of traditional and non-traditional varminting rigs.

Last spring in Colorado I pursued prairie dogs on private ranch lands with a traditional Model 700 Remington Varmint Synthetic .22-250 Remington with a big, bright Simmons 6-20x AETEC scope. Ammunition was a new Federal load featuring the sleek Sierra 55-grain BlitzKing that grouped so well I saw no need to bother with reloading. Yes, this combination gave plenty of reach and a high degree of efficiency. But I abandoned the stability of the truck hood and sand bags in order to sneak along an irrigation ditch and shoot prone. Later I wandered the fields taking sitting shots with the aid of a Stoney Point Shooting Stix. Not surprisingly, I found one of the densest concentrations of dogs in an out-of-the-way corner behind a sagebrush hill. I credit this experience, along with several similar ones over the years, with enabling me to make a kneeling, 250-yard neck shot on a fine muley buck last fall. Yes, I used the shooting sticks.

With this approach, any shooter can improve virtually any brand of field shooting skills while helping a beleaguered landowner reduce his overhead. Do you like deer hunting with an open-sighted .30-30? Belly up on a few rockchucks with that rifle. Or test your patience by outwaiting them in the rocks. Prefer taking mule deer in canyon country? Perfect. You’ll find lots of rockchucks in just such country. Load up your deer rifle or a similar model in a varmint caliber and hike the canyon rims. I joined Chub Eastman from Nosler for just such a hunt a couple of springs back on a private cattle ranch in Nevada. We shot Winchester Supreme .22-250 Remington loads featuring the new Ballistic Tip bullets. They call them Silvertips in this line, and they shot quite nicely in my rifle, which was a Christensen Arms Carbon One. I rather consistently popped chucks out to 300 yards (sometimes 400 when the animals ventured up toward the alfalfa field), in the process improving my confidence in cross-canyon ranging skills. I was even hitting a few running chucks, and believe me that was some rare and valuable experience. All this will contribute to clean kills the next time I’m hunting elk, sheep or mule deer in similar country.

Chub, along with inveterate handgunner and stockmaker Rod Herrett of Twin Falls, Idaho, raised the difficulty level by shooting single-shot handguns. The hits they made were truly impressive. I’ve busted a few prairie dogs with a Thompson/Center Encore .223 Remington over the years, but by and large I prefer a rifle since that’s how I hunt most of my larger game. Nevertheless, handguns offer yet another angle to this game. The idea is to enhance the hunt, increase the challenge and improve your skills while easing the landowner’s infestation problem without exterminating the target species.

One of my favorite non-traditional varminting rigs is a .22 Long Rifle, usually a Kimber 82C under a Leupold 3-9x E.F. scope. This is a perfect outfit for maximizing my education as a bolt-action, open-country big game shooter. The rifle is so accurate with Federal Ultra Match or Winchester Power Point ammunition that hits or misses are strictly my fault. The scope is powerful enough to permit precise holds on tiny Townsend ground squirrel heads out to 50 yards or so. If the whole body is showing, I can do pretty well out to 75 yards. Past that, I’m getting in over my head. I’ve found that a Weaver 4-16x scope cranked up helps considerably on the long-range shots, but I need those shooting sticks or a forend rest of some sort in order to take advantage of that extra magnification.

When I’m into a concentration of squirrels, as I was near Lincoln, Montana, with John Barsness and John Haviland several years ago, I sometimes employ a Ruger Target 10/22. The autoloading action helps me get onto multiple targets quickly, and the heavy-barreled rifle is good for putting 10 shots inside an inch at 50 yards. Extra clip magazines and a Hot Lips speedloader from Butler Creek also help. This might not sound much like restraint, but plague concentrations of ground squirrels in some irrigated crop fields almost mandate efficient trimming to prevent a poisoning campaign. In such places I will pull out all the stops to eliminate as many rodents as possible. Until you’ve seen a real infestation of ground squirrels, it’s hard to believe the numbers.

Usually, however, I prefer a slower pace. Tim Clark of Boise wanders Idaho desert canyons with a shot bag stuffed with vermiculite. With this he pads his Model 700 .17 Remington and picks off chucks as he finds them. This is real hunting involving cautious still-hunting, some stand sitting and considerable glassing - all excellent training for big game hunting. The numbers of chucks taken isn’t as important as the manner in which they are taken. Tim’s shooting grounds remain productive year after year, thanks to this restraint.

The “less-is-more” approach to varminting can resurrect some classics such as the .22 Hornet and .218 Bee. These prewar cartridges are stodgy in comparison to the new .22 centerfires, but they put the hunt back in varminting, and they’re a real treat to shoot. You can actually use a light sporter in these chamberings and still see your hits. After dragging long-barreled, 12-pound varmint rigs over hill and dale a few hours, a .218 sporter weight feels pretty nifty, and good ones shoot quite precisely. Within the past year I’ve met three hunters afield with old Winchester Model 43 bolt-action rifles. Two were chambered for the .218 Bee, one was a .22 Hornet, and all shot wonderfully well. I’m thinking a .221 Fireball built around a Sako or Remington action on a marbled slab of walnut might make a pretty handy, useful and downright fun modern varmint hunting rig.

Technology is a wonderful thing, and today’s high-tech varmint rifles are delightfully accurate and deadly effective. But they might, just might, be too much of a good thing. Just because we can hit tiny targets at 400 yards doesn’t mean we must. Certainly sniping rifles have their place, and we will continue to use them as the last word in long-range precision. But, even though they might define varminting, they needn’t confine it. There are just too many good options, and I, for one, intend to exercise a few.

Accurate Powder
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