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Small game - Prairie dog hunting

Practical Target Practice: Prairie Dog Hunting

By Joe Arterburn


Hunting opportunities are not over for the summer just because the last day of spring turkey season has come and gone. In fact, you can sharpen your rifle-shooting skills and help landowners control disease-carrying pests by planning a prairie dog hunt.


Prairie dogs are plentiful in many states, and landowners are often happy to let responsible hunters take a crack at thinning the population. Ranchers consider prairie dogs, which eat grass, competition for grazing land and their burrows are a menace to livestock.


Had Lewis and Clark named them “prairie rodents”—a more apt description—prairie dogs today would less likely be considered cute, furry animals, or even potential pets for some people. Prairie dogs are actually in the squirrel family, measuring about 14 to 17 inches and weighing one to three pounds, so they provide a challenging target, especially at longer distances.


The appeal of prairie-dogging is that it does not take specialized equipment—just your rifle and lots of ammunition (500 shots per day, even 1,000 are possible), but there are a few ways to get the most from your outing.


For instance, take along a portable shooting bench and set it up overlooking a prairie dog town, which can stretch for hundreds and hundreds of yards. As in all shooting, a steady rest is important and a bench will provide the stability and sitting comfort of a long day of shooting—and you may have long days if you find an area with plentiful prairie dogs.


But you should also use the opportunity to practice shooting from other positions: standing, sitting, kneeling, off-shooting sticks or a tripod or prone. A shooting mat or tarp can make it a bit more comfortable shooting from the prone and sitting positions. And watch out for cactus, sharp rocks, ants or other nasty surprises before sitting or lying down.


You can use about any rifle or pistol for prairie-dogging, but you’ll find smaller calibers the most enjoyable, especially for extended shooting sessions. (Anyone want to shoot 500 rounds through a 30-06 in a day?) By all means, take along your favorite deer rifle and fire some rounds, but you’re likely to switch to smaller calibers when the action heats up. Most popular are 223s, maybe 22-250 for longer shots; then on down to 204 Ruger and the hot little 17HMR. Even plinking with your favorite 22 long rifle is fun. It’s good practice for bolt-actions, but it’s hard not to get carried away with an AR-style rifle or other semi-automatics. Just be careful not to overheat your barrel. Check it regularly, and if it’s too hot to touch, you’d better set it in the shade to cool off. Either you can take a break in the shade or grab another firearm and continue.

Shooting prairie dogs is also good practice for safe firearm handling, and helps keep you accustomed to acquiring targets through a scope. Take binoculars to help spot targets and a spotting scope can let someone spot targets and call shots for a shooter picking off targets. Take turns shooting and spotting.


As always, use hearing and eye protection; and don’t forget sunscreen, insect repellent and a cooler full of water, especially on those hot summer days when prairie dogs seem most active.


So, this summer think about helping a rancher with his pest population and get in some important practice at the trigger. But one more caution: as I mentioned at the start, prairie dogs are known to carry diseases, including the deadly plague which is usually spread by fleas, so be careful about handling dead prairie dogs, such as when posing for photos. The best idea is to not pick them up at all, simply kneel nearby and smile.