Shooting "Varmints" Decimates a Prairie Dog Colony
There’s shooters over there," Kim says suddenly. Immediately, the rest of us look east, where she is pointing, across the flat open land of the Montana prairie, dotted with sage brush and cacti, toward rolling hills and a stand of cottonwood trees."Are you sure?" someone asks, incredulous.
Four of the five of us sit atop the old rickety trailer, which is permanently tinted brown from heat and dust. I’m expecting the four of our bags and us to fall through the roof by the summer’s end.
Kim is the crew leader at our wildlife biology study site. Pam is her assistant. The rest of us—Jenny, Jessica and me—are interns, sitting here in Malta, Montana on a beautiful Sunday morning because we care about the survival of black-footed ferrets, one of North America’s most endangered mammals (see sidebar).
There are less than a dozen ferrets left in all of Montana. Government agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have plans in place to create habitat for these prairie dog-loving predators and to reintroduce them to regions where they’ve been extirpated.
A Bad Reputation
Our job is to capture and process prairie dogs. The processing includes combing the animals for the fleas that carry the plague (then sending the fleas for testing), tagging their ears for identification, measuring their length and weight, taking a blood sample and furnishing the adult animals with a radio telemetry collar on the sites that are properly equipped. Later in the summer, we will dust the treated sites with insecticide in the hopes of killing the fleas that carry the plague. We are trying to determine what negative effects, if any, the dusting has on the prairie dogs—and help the ferrets in the process.
Our crew of five women arrived at the site, plot 185, shortly after 7:30 this morning. After opening, baiting, flagging and mapping the location of 125 traps, our job is to sit with binoculars and watch for a prairie dog that takes the bait and enters the trap. Prairie dogs are extremely susceptible to the elements and can get fried or frozen in an hour or two. The five of us are needed to get everything going before the heat becomes unbearable: by noon the unusually scorching late June temperatures may reach 105 degrees, and the prairie dogs have the luxury of staying underground where it is cool.
"They’re shooting them from their truck!" Kim exclaims, flinching as another shot pierces the air. We can’t see the prairie dogs, but we can see a black Suburban, parked parallel to our study site 186. It’s about 200 feet from that site’s radio telemetry trailer that we use to track the dogs.
Four of our eight sites, including 185 and 186, which are paired, have telemetry trailers on them for tracking radio collars. On these sites, we put a collar on adult dogs—we don’t collar juveniles because we don’t want the collar to choke them as they grow. The collar is made of a brown leathery material and has a skinny, flexible, black wire that sticks out about six inches in the air. The dogs don’t seem bothered by them.
The only thing in the trailers, aside from a plethora of mice, is the radio telemetry equipment that logs each of the collared dogs. If it doesn’t log an animal, it means that either the dog has died or that the collar slipped off. We download this information to the laptop once or twice a week.
We’ve all been here long enough to know the politics behind this particular study. It is no secret that the ranching community dominates and favors "varmint hunters" over wildlife biologists. Just three weeks ago, prairie dog shooters parked their truck less than a mile away from a wildlife biologist clad in a fluorescent yellow rain jacket, and began shooting in his direction. When challenged, they offhandedly said they hadn’t seen him.
"You’re in Montana now," a rancher said to one of my colleagues. "This is the last frontier. We make our own rules out here." Hunters use specially adapted high-powered rifles with scopes that allow them to be out of visual range of the dogs when they shoot. Sitting in chairs and drinking beer as they shoot, these "hunters" can’t miss.
Northeast Montana is open land belonging to the ranchers and the BLM. The residents of the tiny communities in Phillips County support the ranchers and their beliefs. There is neither a designated season nor a bag limit for the number of dogs one can legally shoot.
These areas are ideal spots for scientific studies on the Hanta Virus, West Nile, and for further investigation of the negative effects and boundaries of the plague. We have been warned to watch ourselves closely this summer. Even symptoms of the common cold or a rash that could easily be attributed to the heat should have us weary and prompt us to immediately see a doctor.
It can be argued that the plague has the potential of infecting members of the surrounding community, giving them a reason to support our work. But when these points are made to the residents who hate the dogs, the response is generally the same, "Well, just kill all the dogs and we won’t have to worry about it."
Kim wants to go to 186 with the ploy of downloading the telemetry information in the hopes that her presence will prompt the shooters to leave.
"I"ll go with you," I chime in. The words are out of my mouth before I register what I’m saying. I don’t think about the consequences should our plan fail. We clamber off the trailer and hop in the jeep, prepared to take down a license plate number.
"Can we do anything about these guys, even if we have the tags?" I ask.
"No," Kim responds. "It’s just a way to track them down if they shoot us."
The worn dirt two-track path through the open prairie runs alongside a muddy, buggy cow pond. The Suburban is parked about 100 feet to our left; its passengers peer out their window at us. I see their rifles resting against the window. Their eyes follow us as we arrive at our trailer.
"Ignore them." Kim says.
Periodically I stick my head out to check on the status of the Suburban while Kim downloads the information onto her laptop.
"They’re leaving," I tell her. I watch with relief as the truck gently rolls down the two-track path, wisps of dust rising in its wake. Who knows how long they were sitting here and how many dogs they’ve shot? Kim and I hop in the jeep, ready to head back to site 185.
"Look!" I say, astonished, glancing past Kim to the open prairie. On each of the two mounds closest to the road, dead prairie dogs heap over the burrow’s opening. Most likely these were the sentry dogs. They would have popped out to chirp songs of warning to their family members just before being thrust backwards, their insides literally blown out of them. We rush out of the vehicle towards the fa
llen dogs and walk in opposite directions across the plot. Dead animals are strewn about like dirty socks.
When we return to the house we all share in Malta, Kim calls Jerry, our boss. "I"m sorry to make you have to do this," he tells her, "but you need to go back this afternoon and count the mortalities on not just the study site but also the entire town."
Glumly, we hang around the house for a few hours, with the hot sun glaring down on our long-sleeved cotton bug shirts that cling to our sweat-soaked bodies. We run transects throughout the plot checking the entranceways for dogs that were still in the burrows when they met their fate, and for those that tried to drag themselves back to their home before death became the next activity on the list of things to do today. Every dog I count is covered with flies and lies rotting in the grueling sun. Jess counts one whose head is completely detached and lies three feet from the rest of the body.
Three hours later, we come up with the final death toll: 97 prairie dogs. A third of the town’s population has been obliterated in less than two hours.
JENNA KOCHMER lives in Missoula, Montana, where she is pursuing a master’s degree. She is a freelance writer and participates in seasonal wildlife field studies.