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Colorado Hunters Give the Lowly Prairie Dog One More Reason to Live Underground

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To be sure, there were bigger weapons than Jim Bristow’s at the first annual Top Dog World Championship Prairie Dog Shoot in Nucla, Colo. The most impressive may have been John Seamon’s six-foot rifle, complete with military range finder, custom-made just for blasting the little rodents from nearly a mile away. Bristow, a toolmaker from Longmont, Colo., and an avowed student of ballistics, was armed with a less prepossessing Ruger M-77V, only four feet long, that uses special soft-nosed bullets. “When you hit the dogs, they scatter over an area of three foot square,” Bristow noted proudly. “They just explode.”

For such sport did more than 100 marksmen from 11 states gather on the weekend of July 14 in the southwestern Colorado town of Nucla (pop. 850), along with 25 animal rights protesters, 60 journalists, hundreds of spectators and a corps of wildlife officers and deputies—the latter to enforce a new state law against harassment of hunters. The team of Earl Reams and Rusty Calhoun took the championship—Reams hit 47 dogs in 50 shots—and won prized Kimber varmint rifles worth $1,500 apiece.

Since it is legal in Colorado for private landowners to allow the unlimited extermination of prairie dogs (which cattlemen say deplete rangeland and injure livestock with their burrows), and since Nucla, a mining town, has been in a decade-long slump due to sagging uranium prices, Montrose County Bank President Stan Austin decided a shooting contest might be just the thing to set cash registers ringing again. “For natural resources, we have uranium and vanadium,” said Austin, relaxing inside the Nucla Moose Lodge as the sound of gunfire echoed through the scrub-covered hills. “The only other thing we have plenty of is prairie dogs.”

Business boomed, if briefly. Mortician Joe Hale sold 150 “prairie dog coffins” at $35 each; Norma’s Chuckwagon Cafe did a roaring trade in “Prairie Dog Legs” (chicken wings) in three flavors (ready, aim and fire); the Yellow Rock Cafe down the hill added prairie dog (hotdog) on a stick to the menu; and just outside town a hand-lettered sign said: WE WASTE ‘EM, YOU TASTE ‘EM. PRAIRIE DOG STEW.

With the hunt spread out over 15,000 acres, protesters were too scattered to cause much disruption. Still, they carried placards calling the event ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE BRAIN DEAD, and some taunted, “If you can’t get it up in bed, shoot a prairie dog instead,” for which some were spat upon with tobacco juice. Nucla was just grateful for the publicity. Said one happy merchant: “We’re talking about some kind of incentive program to get the protesters out here again next year.”