A bison-sized 4×4 cuts its way across Far West scenery. A vast, desert expanse spreads beyond view. The temperature is touching 40°C; not enough to deter a dozen or so antelopes from nibbling at the tufts of burnt grass. The turns in the road reveal the occasional village peering out of the dust like lunar colonies.
As night falls, the scenery slowly changes. The powerful motor roars and pulls our vehicle to the top of a dirt track winding through the mountainside forest. A wapiti crosses through our headlights before disappearing into the thick darkness. Suddenly, a collection of cabins in a clearing ahead. This is where we’ll be spending the night, at an altitude of almost 2,500 metres. No light pierces the starry veil, save the faint halo of the moon. We are told that wolves and bears prowl the area.
“Remember to shut your cabin doors!”
Prairie dogs, the archetypal pest
The next morning, we’re up early and cheerful. Strangely, waking up is always easier when there’s a day’s hunting ahead. An hour’s drive later, with four or five stops for photo shots of the many deer that live in these woods, we arrive at a vast expanse of dust. The owner of these lands, Johnny, calls to us.
“You see all those hundreds of holes? Those are entrances to prairie dogs burrows. That’s a lot of prairie dogs! These critters do a real lot of damage, so go for it. Prairie dogs spread lots of diseases including rabies, and are also responsible for the deaths of livestock. Cows and horses can break their limbs when they step on a burrow. Then they die of dehydration or have to be put down. The mass of tunnels dug by prairie dogs also causes landslides during heavy rains.”
Always happy to help… The X-Bolt 223Rem are handed out to the nine hunters. We’re firing Browning BXV ammunition, which is only available in the United States and is for use on varmints and predators like coyotes, foxes and prairie dogs. For any long-range shots, we have the KSP HD2 2-12×50 from Kite Optics. With temperatures already nudging 30°C, the specially designed Savannah range of keep-cool clothing is going to be handy.
Serious trouble shooting
We don’t have to wait long for the first shots to ring out. Matteo from Italy and Laurent from France are shooting at a prairie dog on its hind feet some 200 metres away. The third shot finds its 20-cm-high standing target and brings the little fellow back down to earth…
Prairie dogs are not known for being quick-witted. With these rodents, curiosity kills the… dog. They often rear up to see who’s shooting at them. The ground is soon littered with spent cases. Their size and colour make our targets difficult to see, and they are especially hard to hit beyond 200 metres.
Drivers passing alongside our hunting ground give us the thumbs-up. What a contrast to Europe, where just holding a gun provokes peeping horns!
Given the trouble we are having shooting, we decide to try a different method. We opt for a more active approach to our hunt and cross the road to a vast, rich-green prairie. A lake provides a watering hole for grazing horses. The bones of a cow lie near the entrance to a burrow, where it probably broke a leg before dying of thirst.
Moving to another field
We spread out in a line and walk forward, combing the plain. Prairie dogs hop between tufts of grass. Some scurry into their burrows with a dive that would make Michael Phelps jealous. We fire away with abandon, and with a lot more success. Their fur is easier to see in the grass and they are closer by.
Some of us even manage to shoot moving prairie dogs. The X-Bolt Varmint is fearsomely effective. The 223Rem calibre is light enough to be able to fire multiple shots in quick succession without taking your eyes off the target. At times, the sight in the scope is like something from a splatter film. The prairie dogs have little chance against our plastic-tipped bullets. Most of the time they are literally blown away.
As 2 pm approaches, we start packing up. We have fired off some 1,000 rounds and left around 210 prairie dogs on the ground; and provided some respite for the local land owners.
“They breed so fast… You can do that every week, you’d be doing us a favour,” sighs a local behind the wheel of an enormous pickup truck.
A word to the wise…