Prairie dogs are a gift.
For hunters and shooters, the summer months are made bearable by the presence of the rodents. At one time they may have been the most populous mammal in North America–a single Texas black-tailed dog town was estimated at 25,000 square miles in size with a reported 400 million animals. Their overall numbers, though still in the tens of millions, are, of course, far lower today; but that one species alone, the black-tailed (and there are several different species), burrows in over almost 2 million acres from Canada to Mexico.
There was a time when ranchers virtually put up roadsigns advertising “Free Prairie Dog Shooting This Way ☞”and were even said to offer to pay for the ammunition. Long past are the days. Lots of things from liability to trespassing and vandalism have lessened the enthusiasm of land owners to allow prairie-dog shooters onto their property. But the greatest impasse is simply that the sport has become so dog-gone (sorry) popular. Now many ranchers are only too happy to let shooters hammer away, for a price.
In the home-on-the-range spirit of seldom hearing a discouraging word, be assured there is still plenty of prairie-dog shooting to be had. If you live in the prairie-dog zone, you will know where to look. If not, the wildlife departments in those states almost certainly have a “non-game” expert (don’t use “varmints” without being prepared for a lecture) who can point you in a direction. If you are planning on a long road trip or flight out to prairie-dog country, with plans to shoot, then you should seriously think about using the services of a guide, which may be less expensive and more enjoyable than bouncing around on backroads for several days, scouting, and not firing a shot.
Reliable prairie-dog outfitters can be found throughout the region, though more than a few may be already fully booked for this year. You can do your homework, though, and find the best one for you. They should have access to multiple towns on private land or in lightly visited public. The towns should also be sufficiently large. The nearest dogs will get the idea pretty quickly that they need to keep their heads down, so you will, sooner rather than later, find yourself stretching out the yardage to 300, 400, 500 yards, or more, where the critters will remain fairly oblivious over the course of the shoo
Ask the guide what what they have in the way of equipment. Portable shooting chairs or benches are a must. Do they have solid rests and spotting scopes, so you don’t need to bring your own? They ought to have a good rangefinder, or tell you to bring one. Shooting for prairie dogs can be a full-day event, and in a remote location, making having food and water on hand more a necessity than a luxury. And have a cleaning rod and supplies handy–you’ll need them.
To do it right, have a dedicated varmint rifle (with do respect to the non-game specialists, I can’t think of another word) and fine-line scope (so the dog isn’t covered over in the sight), though a shooter can up the ante with a handgun, in either single-shot or revolver, in almost any of the most popular calibers for prairie dog. The 22-250, found in Browning loads along with 223 Remington and 22 Hornet, plus the polymer-tipped rimfire 17 HMR, may be too hot to handle in a pistol; but the rest will all work just fine.
The 17 HMR, while a great deal of fun, will probably give up at around 200 yards; but no reason not to use it on the closer ones at the start of the day. You will want, though, to have something heavier for later on.
There is a saying about fly fishing in Wyoming and Montana, that if you can’t cast in the wind, you can’t cast in those states. The same for shooting in prairie-dog towns. A gentle breeze is probably something clocked at about 30 mph. So look for rounds with the highest ballistic-coefficients you can find. (The 22 Hornet, for example, is not going to have the same long-range trajectory of the 223 with roughly twice the BC.)
An old prairie-dog shooter and guide, my late friend Leroy, always said he didn’t start shooting before July. His reason was that the females were still nursing their young until then. So if a prairie dog you killed in June were a female, you may also have doomed her pups. Leroy was someone who truly appreciated having prairie dogs, the gift that keeps on giving.