Dogs Gone By: On the Front Line in the War Against Prairie Dogs
Tom McHale 07.21.14
We awoke at dawn.
Most of us were slightly nervous, but energized by the certainty of impending combat. I doubt the enemy ever sleeps. They’re too busy digging tunnel networks.
We’d been the ones to choose the field of battle—the Silver Spur Ranch in Encampment, Wyoming. Encampment is an eerily appropriate name given the enemy’s permanent dug-in positions.
Our foe has a great propaganda machine, although I have absolutely no idea how they can afford such a thing. As a result, most people know them as those cute, adorable, and cuddly Facebook poster-critters. Awwww.
Like Hollywood celebrities, our enemy’s day-to-day behavior is somewhat different from their public image. They cause massive damage to agricultural and grazing land. They eat each other like real-world zombies. They reproduce faster than Anthony Wiener texts his, well, you know. They carry the plague. They’re downright evil.
Yes, I’m talking about prairie dogs.
When it comes to setting a battle strategy, you need to use every possible advantage. If you’re fighting fair, your tactics suck. We had no room to give up the slightest advantage. The Silver Spur Ranch has been occupied with just over 15.371 billion prairie dogs—I counted. Our strike team numbered six, plus our guide Roger, and our hosts Jeff, Matt, and Neal.
Even though the numerical odds weren’t exactly in our favor, I was confident in our chances. I took stock of our advantages:
- We have opposable thumbs and can do neat things with them like play Angry Birds.
- We live in above ground structures and eat bacon pretty much whenever we want.
- My brain is larger than theirs, so I figured my enemy had only 85 percent or so of my IQ.
- They have the intelligence of spackle.
- They live in holes.
When you’re facing an enemy of near-unlimited strength that’s dug in, you have to figure out how to break the trench warfare stalemate using technology. Back in World War I, they invented tanks to overrun the enemy. So did we, although ours were slightly more nimble than the Little Willy Tank of 1915. We used Yamaha Viking side by side UTVs, both of the two-seater and six-seater variety. These off-road wonders had plenty of capacity to haul a dozen guns, cases of Hornady ammo, and us. The machines navigated gulleys, sagebrush, and prairie dog and badger holes with ease.
We also had the advantage of outspending our opponent in the arms race. The Blue Heron Communications team, representing Smith & Wesson, only brought 38 guns, so I was a little worried, but it worked out alright in the end. Hornady supplied somewhere north of 10 billion rounds of varmint ammunition, by my best estimate.
On the first day of battle, I rode with Neal, the marketing head at Hornady ammunition. Smart move on my part to ride with the ammo guy, right? Facing such an overpopulated foe, I was not going to run out of cartridges at a critical moment. Neal chose a Thompson/Center Venture in .22-250 and stoked it with Hornady’s .22-250 V-MAX loads. With that setup, he was the big gun on our team. He backed that up with a Smith & Wesson 617 revolver offering 10 shots of .22 long rifle—just in case our perimeter was overrun.
I chose a variety of guns to account for short, medium, and long range.
My short-range option was new gun from Smith & Wesson to be announced August 12, so stay tuned right here for a full review of that. Let’s just say it worked beautifully on close-range varmints.
For medium range, I chose a Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22 Performance Center model. With a heavier fluted and threaded barrel, two-stage match trigger, and Bushnell AR optic, this was effective out to 200 yards with a little experimentation and Kentucky windage application.
If I had to classify myself, I’m more of a shooter than a hunter. So, in a situation where I have to choose a gun to shoot for a whole day, I’m going to pick the AR or whatever platform most efficiently sends lead downrange with reasonable accuracy in the shortest amount of time.
But, on a prairie dog hunt on the plains of the great state of Wyoming, you might find yourself trying to hit targets a couple of inches wide at distances of 100 to 500 yards. Complicating that, you’ll encounter wind gusts from 20 to 25 miles per hour. These are the times when all good folks appreciate the value of a quality bolt-action rifle.
Somewhat on a whim, I selected a Thompson/Center Dimension rifle chambered in .204 Ruger for day one of the great prairie dog campaign. My reasoning was simple: the flat-shooting Hornady 32-grain V-MAX Superformance round had plenty of oomph to take down the Rambo of prairie dogs, and I had never shot this caliber before.
Upon finding the dogs, we utilized a stealth, ninja-like approach, roaring up on Tora Bora Dog Town at about 45 miles per hour in our six-seater Viking, empty brass rattling all the way. Since prairie dogs have the situational awareness of pressure-treated fence posts, our approach strategy worked, and we were able to get to work capping those little land squatters.
My big surprise was the performance of the Hornady .204 Ruger 32-grain load out of the T/C Dimension. A well-balanced rifle, I found it easy to support in non-conventional positions from the interior of the Yamaha tankette and later when stalking on foot. Performance against the varmints was, well, explosive. Even a 32-grain, .20-caliber projectile, when traveling at 4,225 feet per second, is bound to do some serious damage on target—and it did. The biggest surprise was its lack of recoil. Comfort is nice, but when engaging rodents at long range, the lack of muzzle jump allows you to see your shots impact. If you hit, you see it. If you miss, you see the required adjustment required and can quickly follow up with a more accurate shot. Wow. I want one of these.
Even George Washington had to give his troops a rest, wintering his forces in South Beach, or so I’m told. There’s nothing like the smell of Hawaiian Tropic Golden Tanning Lotion and a few morning mojitos to get that fighting spirit back in time for the spring guts and gore season. We did the same after a long day of mounted UTV attack and walking patrols, and headed back to the Spur Outfitters lodge for steak and cigars.
On day two, I felt compelled to try different guns, and the Blue Heron hosts pried the Thompson/Center Dimension from my hands. I quickly replaced it with three guns: a T/C Venture Predator chambered in .204 Ruger (take away my new .204 Ruger caliber? I think not!); a Smith & Wesson M&P15 Performance Center model with fixed stock, 20-inch barrel, and Bushnell AR optic; and for shorter range, a Smith & Wesson 647 .17 HMR Varminter revolver.
My day-two surprise? The 647 Varminter using Hornady’s .17 HMR 17-grain V-MAX. At 100 yards and less, the scoped long-barrel revolver was deadly accurate and shockingly effective. I took the included bipod off so I could use a sandbag rest and that proved a stable solution.
While I would like to say we won the war, I have to admit we didn’t even make a dent in the enemy’s strength. I know for a fact we didn’t even reduce their numbers by a billion. At least we didn’t have any casualties, except for several trigger-finger blisters.
War is hell.
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.