PANDEMIC PRAIRIE DOGS

I’ve often written that prairie dog shooting is some of the best practice possible for field shooting at big game. The targets are small, distances vary from close to as far as you wish to try, shooting angles vary, there are plenty of opportunities and their high plains habitat is rarely calm. You quickly learn wind deflection and how essential it is to find some way to get perfectly steady.

It is true that prairie dogs are not generally considered edible game. Like many rodents they carry diseases and the prairie dog can carry some nasty ones. However, ranchers hate them because their mounds destroy pastures and their holes are a hazard to livestock. And they eat grass. Sure, one small prairie dog doesn’t need much, but a colony can number into thousands and, if left unchecked, can extend for miles. Shooting is thus an option to poisoning, which ranchers will resort to if a colony gets out of hand.

Prairie dogs are cute, fun to watch and their chirping is a nice sound. They are part and parcel of the American West and I want them to see them and hear them. But I’m not a rancher, worried about grazing capacity and hoping a horse or cow won’t step in a hole and break a leg. So, every now and then, I shoot a few and use their lessons to make me a better and more effective field marksman.

I did a lot of prairie dog shooting when I was young, and to this day I credit the prairie dog for any skill I have in reading wind and getting steady. Back then there were towns everywhere and thousands upon thousands of prairie dogs. A couple decades ago a disease swept through them, at least in the Wyoming country I knew and, for a time, dogs were sparse. I got away from it, but today they’ve made a strong comeback.

Gordon Marsh on the bench with his Ruger Number One in .204 Ruger, a big prairie dog colony stretching away as far as you can see. Offering lots of shooting at little expense, prairie dogs offer awesome field practice…and most ranchers are adamant that these rodents must be controlled.

In recent years, a short prairie dog shoot has become an annual event with several friends. Summer is okay, but it gets hot and the sun can be fierce. Late spring is an ideal time, when the weather is mild and the dogs are active through much of the day. Of course, the late spring of 2020 was problematic, with most of the world in the vise-like grip of a tiny virus, travel impractical and most forms of recreation seeming impossible and downright unpatriotic.

Gordon Marsh, Bill Green, Ronnie Whitten and I, all in the firearms industry one way or another, had our annual prairie dog shoot scheduled for end of May/early June. Like most of us, everybody had lots of plans (great and small) interrupted this spring. We fully expected to cancel our prairie dog shoot along with everything else but this is a different hunt than many. No big deposits, hunting licenses or complex travel plans at stake. We usually drive anyway, so we can bring a selection of rifles and plenty of ammo. So, we left this trip “on hold,” sheltering in place and watching the news, hoping things might start to open up.

I’m a firm believer in Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong, certainly will. Mr. Murphy has been very busy these last few months, but he wasn’t paying attention to our prairie dog plans. Our dates coincided with Wyoming’s “official” re-opening. Properly “socially-distant” hotels and restaurants were open. So, fortified by face masks and armed with gallons of hand sanitizer, we made a last-minute “go” decision, jumped in our vehicles and converged on Cheyenne.

In years gone by, when prairie dogs were legion, I knew shooters who went for a week or more, expending thousands of rounds. Some so dedicated that they brought tailgate-mobile reloading gear! I’ve never been that serious and am not today, but two or three days of good shooting is wonderful fun and an awesome tune-up.

Among our group, most of us start with .17 HMRs, then move up to centerfires for longer shots. This year, Gordon and Ronnie did most of their work with rifles in .204 Ruger. Ronnie was shooting a Ruger American bolt-action, Gordon a Number One single-shot. For serious long-range shooting, Gordon stepped up to his “big gun,” a heavy-barreled Savage in .22-250. Typically, I do a lot of shooting with a left-hand Rock River AR in 5.56mm (.223). I drove up from Kansas and had plenty of room, so I also did some shooting with an Alexander Arms 6.5mm Grendel and a new left-hand Wilson AR in .300 Blackout, both lots of fun.

However, for serious shooting at longer range, for years my go-to prairie dog rifle has been another Ruger Number One in .204 Ruger, heavy-barreled in stainless steel, now wearing a Leupold VX6 3-18X. To me, the .204 is a near-perfect varmint cartridge, fast and accurate, outranging the .223, but with less recoil than a .22-250. With a heavy-barreled .204 and a good hold, you can often call your shots through the scope, almost impossible with a .22-250. But it doesn’t really matter what you use, it’s a matter of accuracy, getting steady and reading the wind. This year, Bill Green bypassed centerfires altogether, sticking with the .17 HMR. He’s a master with his semiauto .17, frequently making amazing shots out to 300 yards, but at that distance he burns up a lot of ammo doping the wind.

Craig Oceanak of Timberline Outfitters ranches as well as hunts north of Cheyenne. He and his son, Nick, had several towns scouted that they (and their neighbors) wanted thinned out a bit. In this pandemic spring the prairie dogs were relatively undisturbed and were as plentiful as I’ve seen in many a year. We caught glorious weather, sunny but not hot, with a cooling breeze. Oceanak has portable shooting benches with swivel seats, awesome.

Since I use my prairie dog shooting for field practice, I usually divide my time between deliberate shooting from the bench and what I call “roving,” wandering the edges of a colony and practicing field positions, using sticks, or taking rests over mounds or against fenceposts. Such shooting burns more ammo for fewer hits, but it’s valuable. So is shooting from a steady rest.

On the second day I set a bench on a little ridge, with a big colony stretching off across the valley below — from my position, safe shooting for a 120-degree arc. The wind wasn’t strong, but it kept shifting. To my right front, at 300 yards I needed to hold about 1.5 minutes of left windage; to my left front, the hold was reversed…until the wind shifted again. That’s the magic of prairie dog shooting. You must read the wind, one shot at a time. Nobody hits them all, but if you can hit prairie dogs consistently—at any distance, from any position—then few shots at big game will give you pause.

We had a great shoot — hit some, missed others, burned up some ammo. After the last few months, it was wonderful to just get out. And then, too soon, it was time to pack up for our long drives home and back to a bit more sheltering in place.–Craig Boddington

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