Magazine | July 29, 2019, Issue

Why Shoot Prairie Dogs?

A coyote eating a prairie dog in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, N.D. (Don Johnston/Getty Images)
I went to the Dakotas to see for myself

Somewhere in North Dakota or South Dakota

It is possible to grasp just how enormous a country the United States is with the use of an atlas. And yet, without traveling across it outside of an airplane, one is hard pressed to translate that understanding into anything concrete. I am reminded often of an English friend of mine who, upon discovering that I would be spending the summer in Washington, D.C., said, casually, “I’ll be in America, too. My first time! We must get dinner.” I later learned that he was set to work in Los Angeles. He never called.

Attempts to remedy this misapprehension — that America is its coasts, and nothing else besides — usually involve the highlighting of the country’s most famous ornaments. Read any Tourist Board–approved literature designed to push foreign visitors beyond New York, Orlando, and San Francisco, and you will see all the greatest hits. Big Sur. The Grand Canyon. Arches National Park. The Mississippi River. The Everglades. This is understandable, of course; America has some of the most glorious scenery in the world. But, because each monument represents a focal point in its own right, even they fail to convey the country’s vastness. To truly master that, it is necessary to look beyond the highlights and the postcards to a place that is overlooked by everyone. It is necessary to visit the Great Plains.

Here, in the middle of nowhere, somewhere around the North Dakota–South Dakota border, I have all but lost touch with modernity. The nearest town in either direction is 40 miles away, and the one hamlet within striking distance of where I am staying consists of a single-roomed bar, a post office, and a faded wooden church. There is no cell service and nowhere to search for unsecured Wi-Fi. My hotel — well, my “hotel” — is parked slap-bang in the middle of a field, and when my party arrives there is nothing and nobody there save for a brief note welcoming us to rooms eight and ten and inviting us to take a beer from the fridge. I ask the guys I’m with what I should do if I’ve forgotten something, and they laugh sardonically. As one undoes the tarp on his pickup, I see why. Along with the guns and ammo, there are a freeze box, three coolers, a generator, a propane tank, a full-size stove, a pressure cooker, and an ingenious device made from a string trimmer and the top of a blender that can be used to make ice-cream cocktails. 

From the top of what the locals ambitiously describe as a “hill,” I can see for 20 or 30 miles without electrical lines of any sort breaking the view. It is quiet, with no artificial sounds encroaching upon the wind and the birds and the crickets. And then the guns open up, with a crack, a whistling sound, and, on occasion, the familiar high-pitched twang of a ricochet.

Yes, I am here, in America’s most peaceful place, to shoot prairie dogs. Yes, those prairie dogs — the cute, bewhiskered, gopher-like little buggers that pop out of their mounds and stand on their hind legs, twitching. The prairie dogs of Dorling Kindersley “Nature!” books and stylized children’s cartoons. The chirpy, fidgety things you see as here-is-the-Midwest scene-setters on Planet Earth. Why? Well, because someone has to.

It turns out that, as cute as they might look, the prairie dogs of the Dakotas have become so populous and so busy that they have turned a good chunk of both states’ farmland into the Somme. The name given to the series of tunnels and mounds that prairie dogs tend to construct is “town,” but, in many places here, “city” is more appropriate. Or, perhaps, “endless suburban sprawl.” Unchecked, a colony of prairie dogs will turn a lush green valley into a dry brown mess — a lunarscape incongruously wedged between rolling hills. Which, suffice it to say, is a bit of a problem, not only for the farmers who own that dry brown mess, but for the cows and horses that rely upon the grass for food and can be mortally wounded if they step into the holes while moving at speed. So bad has the problem become, in fact, that, in addition to the private efforts being made by hunters, farmers, and landowners, the Forest Service has begun a concerted program of poisoning.

Hence the guns. To the uninitiated, it may seem a little mean to sit on the side of a hill at 150 yards’ range and shoot a scoped .17-caliber rifle at what is little more than a glorified squirrel. But, when one considers the alternatives, it is anything but, for, if the prairie dogs are not culled by hunters, they will be gassed, poisoned, trapped, or even vacuumed up on an industrial scale. Typical ways of clearing prairie-dog towns include the deployment of gas cartridges that release carbon monoxide or sodium nitrate; the spreading of aluminum phosphide pellets that create phosphine gas when mixed with water; the distribution of grain that has been laced with either the anticoagulant chlorophacinone or the toxicant zinc phosphide; and the use of old-fashioned mechanical traps that can take days to kill. As well as being less accurate and less instant than a bullet, all of these approaches are relatively indiscriminate, there being no realistic way for a trap or a piece of poisoned grain to tell whether it is killing a prairie dog or killing a badger, a snake, or a hawk. In certain circumstances there is no choice but to take a comprehensive approach — which means chemicals and fuses and traps and the like. In many, however, a pickup truck, a freeze box, and a couple of rifles will get the job done — and without any of the negative externalities that mark the more modern, industrial approach. This was how our grandparents cleared the land.

And so, each day, for four days straight, we shoot until the coterie has been thinned. At night, we go home to our grill and our trimmer-blender, and the foxes and coyotes and hawks take over, such that by the time we return there are no dead bodies left on the ground. It is slow work, but it’s warm outside and the air is fresh and it’s a pleasure to be so completely removed from the intricacies of the news cycle. 

Driving back to the hotel each day, I am struck by how removed we are becoming from where — and how — our food is made, and from what so much of this enormous, varied, continental nation looks like. At our hotel, the TV broadcasts news from Manhattan in such detail that we are made aware of the problems that residents are having with the subway. Is that understanding reciprocated? I suspect that it is not. Mention to someone in the Dakotas that you are shooting prairie dogs and they will ask, “with a .17?” Mention it to someone in New York City and they will look at you askance, if you’re lucky. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Sixth Avenue, but most remain hidden from view. And on turns the world.

This article appears as “Consider the Varmint” in the July 29, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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