I was talking with one of my office mates discussing hunting – all official business, of course. He had mentioned hunting ground hogs, which reminded me of my father’s tales of hunting woodchucks (one in the same animal, I believe). A broad term for that type of sport is Varmint Hunting. The qualifications for “varminthood” are simple - the animal is an agricultural pest, you don’t usually eat the animal (unless you are from Appalachia or the Ozarks), and it is a menace to the golfing industry ala “Caddyshack”.
I have gone varmint hunting. It went against my feelings about only shooting animals I was intending to eat, hunting was the only way to procure venison, for instance (not that I ever procured any by that method, try as I might). The varmint in my sights was the loveable cuddly plague-rat sometimes called the Prairie Dog. I didn’t have any feelings one way or the other about prairie dogs to begin with; I didn’t hold a grudge or feel threatened by them at any rate.
I was shanghaied into the first hunt when some friends came out from Wisconsin. The dude was champing at the bit to shoot prairie dogs since some of his buds back in Wisconsin had taken a special vacation just to blast dogs. He had a top of the line varmint rifle, scope, bipod, and ammunition he had loaded himself. Before I knew it we hopped in his car and were on our way out to a ranch on the wild South Dakotan prairie.
Now I know there are going to be those who are going to be upset that someone could drop the hammer on these fluffy little Disneyesque rodents, but what you might not realize is that some of these prairie dog villages cover hundreds of acres. Cattle break their legs in the holes and the dogs are excellent disease vectors. Ranchers are in an all out war with them, in fact. I don’t know how many times we’d pull up to a ranch to shoot prairie dogs and the rancher would tell us to kill them all. That is a task even Prairie Dog Pete, Buffalo Bill’s younger brother, couldn’t pull off.
Aside from the general carnage it is just wonderful being out on the prairie. The grasslands don’t seem to end – in the distance we could see the edge of the badlands, to the West you could make out the low dark Black Hills. It is a deceptive place – it looks perfectly flat, but there are hidden ravines and depression that serve as highways for deer and antelope. There is cactus, rocks, and occasional lines of cottonwood trees that follow the edges of streams. It is always windy; in fact it is one of those places where if the wind ever stops you better be seeking shelter pretty quickly.
The place is a sea of life. Besides prairie dogs, there are snakes, coyotes, pronghorns, mule deer, ground squirrels, hawks, vultures, eagles, and a wide variety of insect life. There are even different types of grasses, though European imports have crowded out a lot of the native species. Oh, and there is cactus, did I mention cactus? I still have needles imbedded in various parts of my body. Some might call it just desserts, but when you go to shoot prairie dogs you lie down on the ground and wait for them to pop up. Seedling prickly pair cacti are tough to pick out amongst the stones that blanket parts of the grasslands, until you lie down on top of them, of course. It was always important to watch where you lie because we weren’t the only ones after prairie dogs. Prairie dog villages are like a bed and breakfast for rattle snakes, and contrary to popular belief they don’t always rattle before they strike. One of my friends almost came down right on top of one, and never under any circumstances should you stick anything you want to keep in the holes. There is often a snake sleeping just inside after having dined on the former occupants. He isn’t going to be happy when you wake him.
As with most of my attempts at hunting this one wasn’t so great either. I had an old Eastern-bloc special also known as an SKS, with iron sights. I think I mostly plowed up a lot of dirt and the dogs were relatively safe. After you shot a few times the varmints would wise up, as much as a prairie dog can anyway, and refuse to come out. You picked up your shootin’ iron and hiked up over the rise to the next part of the village. I have never seen such a huge are stripped of all vegetation and covered with mounds. It looked like a huge minefield and covered several square miles in every direction. You have to have some perspective to understand these ranches – we drove for about 45 minutes to get to the dog town and we weren’t even in the middle of the guy’s ranch yet.
It was nice to just lie there and look out over the grass and taken in the splendor of the yellow, pink, and brown hills in the badlands. You could almost imagine the rhino-like, horse-like, and other creatures of the Eocene moving in vast herds over the plains. It had that kind of primitive feel to it. You could hear the rustle of the grass and smell the perfume of the sage – a very fresh smell. In fact the Sioux use it in purification tires. A shadow would glide over the grasses and the prairie dogs would do their patented whistle that earned them their name. That is the sign to hit the dirt, because there was a large hungry hawk casting that shadow.
Whether hunting animals or agates I spent a lot of time out on the Great Plains. If you really want a taste of the “Old West” I highly recommend Western South Dakota. Get out on to the prairies, watch your step, and soak in the miles and miles of uninterrupted grass all singing that siren’s song that still calls me back to this day.