The other day I was reading up on passenger pigeons and the 19th-century slaughter that rushed a population of billions of birds into extinction over a matter of decades. It reminded me that the same sort of mindless killing happens in the United States even now. It made me think in particular of an afternoon I spent years ago near Rapid City, S.D., with a group of shooters who sometimes jokingly referred to themselves as “the red mist society,” because that’s what a prairie dog turns into on impact with one of their high-powered bullets.
To biologists, prairie dogs are a keystone species of the American West. Those plump little bodies, concentrated in huge colonies or “towns,” are an essential food for coyotes, kit foxes, golden eagles, black-footed ferrets, and dozens of other species. But to a lot of ranchers, farmers, and home owners, prairie dogs are an agricultural pest, a blight on suburban lawns. Shooting and poisoning them, even on federal lands, has somehow become completely legal and acceptable behavior.
As a result, the five prairie dog species, which once sprawled across hundreds of millions of acres, from northern Mexico to Canada, now survive in fragmented colonies, altogether covering perhaps 3 million acres. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the Utah and Mexican species under the Endangered Species Act but has declined to provide protected status to the more widespread black-tailed prairie dog. In its wisdom, FWS has also ruled that recreational shooting in the estimated population of 24 million black-tailed prairie dogs does not constitute a significant threat.
My encounter with this odd sport happened in the course of filming a television documentary about prairie dogs, and if you are at all squeamish, you should just stop reading at this point because—fair warning—it gets gruesome.
I was a guest of the Varmint Hunters Association (motto: “Courtesy, Camaraderie, Conservation”), on a rolling, grassy ranch east of Rapid City. “I have no ill will towards the prairie dogs,” said Ned Kalbfleish, then president of the association. “The killing of the prairie dogs is just a by-product of my evolving accuracy” as a shooter, he reasoned. Hitting prairie dogs rather than paper targets gives a more “immediate resultant effect.”
Kalbfleish was using Winchester ballistic Silvertip bullets, each capped with a polycarbonate tip. “This is an exceptionally frangible bullet and will fall apart much faster than its hollow-point counterpart,” he explained. “On a small, thin-skinned target, it's also much more destructive.”
We could see the prairie dogs popping up and grazing on a distant hillside. “There’s one saying, ‘Take me now. Take me first,’ ” said Kalbfleish. “You don’t need a long lens for that one. He’s just 45 yards out. Having a morning salad.” He fired, and there was a cloud of dust where the prairie dog used to be. A couple of burrowing owls, which live in prairie dog burrows, skittered up and flew off.
Another prairie dog took a hit, flopped around, and then stumbled out of sight. “He’s gonna have a long night,” Kalbfleish remarked. A third prairie dog sailed 10 feet through the air, spewing blood. “That makes me nauseous,” he joked, as he lit up a cigarette. “That’s why I say they’re reactionary targets.” A fourth prairie dog went down, decapitated. “That’s what we in the prairie dog field call ‘good head.’ I heard it pop. Just took it right off. Big time. Gone.”
He gradually extended his choice of targets out to 500 yards and beyond. “Oh, my God,” Kalbfleish joked at one point. “It would take the bullet two and a half minutes to get there.” Then, after hitting another dog: “There you go—that bounced him.” “At what distance?” someone asked. “Two zip codes. Usually if I want to get a bullet that far I just call UPS.”
The afternoon went on like that (“That looked like it hurt real bad”). And on (“He’s going over to see his friend. Ooooh, his friend died!”). And on (“He’s cantaloupe!”). At one point, we went down range to examine the results and found a prairie dog with its face flattened, the back of its head blown out, and its belly already bloated in the afternoon sun, the flies moving in. Gratified, the shooters returned to their positions and fired some more.
“Now for the most important part,” Kalbfleish declared at the end of the day, totaling up the body count. “Shooters: 136; prairie dogs: 0.”
It had been a fine afternoon of sport hunting, and as usual, the steadily dwindling population of prairie dogs had no idea what hit them.
Does that leave you feeling a little sick, even outraged? Does it seem like the wrong kind of long-range thinking to let a great American species be slaughtered down to nothing? Don’t bother telling the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is under plenty of pressure as is. Tell it to your representatives in Congress instead. And tell them you want action.
Otherwise, prairie dogs could become the next passenger pigeon.