|March - April 2000
Volume 32, Number
Ross is holding a Westley Richard's, Deeley & Edge
the 8x binocular I saw my friends 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
it had been raining a lot or this colony hadnt 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.
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.
pushed down on the silky steel lever beneath the single-shots 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.
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.
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.
my companions continued to snipe long-range varmints with traditional heavy-barreled
varmint rifles fired off Bulls 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.
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. Im sure I shoot fewer
varmints this way, but I dont 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.
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 didnt
think Id 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 hadnt
seen a dog for years. Yes, he had done some poisoning for several seasons. He couldnt
interest enough shooters to keep the vermin from spreading, so what else could he do?
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 weve sold out from under ourselves.
Have you tried the new computer hunting games yet?
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 dont 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 well have this place cleaned out,
he bragged. He meant the prairie dogs.
the price of cattle these days against the daily rate he was pocketing from his varmint
shooters, its a wonder he didnt see his accounting error. At some point we are
going to have to accept the reality that weve fulfilled Genesis, carried out
Manifest Destiny. It is no longer us against them. If we persist in this nineteenth
century philosophy, well soon awaken to an awfully boring world of cows, corn and
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. Todays typical teenager isnt likely to relate to the plight of an
isolated Wyoming rancher whos 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.
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. Ill bet you wont 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.
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.
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. Youll
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 Im hunting elk, sheep or mule deer in
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. Ive busted a few prairie dogs with a Thompson/Center Encore .223
Remington over the years, but by and large I prefer a rifle since thats 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 landowners infestation problem without exterminating the target species.
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, Im getting in over my head. Ive 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.
Im 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 youve seen a
real infestation of ground squirrels, its hard to believe the numbers.
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 isnt as important as the manner in which they are taken. Tims
shooting grounds remain productive year after year, thanks to this restraint.
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 theyre 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 Ive 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.
Im 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
Technology is a wonderful thing, and todays
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
doesnt 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 neednt confine it. There are just too many good options, and I, for
one, intend to exercise a few.