Prairie Dogs: The Best Teachers (Craig Boddington)

I probably should follow my own advice, but I’m no different than most in that I often don’t! I’ve often written that varmint shooting offers the best practice there is. Woodchucks in the East and rockchucks in the West are good, likewise small rodents like ground squirrels and gophers… but there’s nothing better than prairie dogs.

Benchrest shooting Wyoming prairie dogs
Gordon Marsh with one of his “long range” prairie dog rifles, a heavy-barreled Savage 116 in .204 Ruger. With a heavy rifle like this in .204 shots can be called through the scope, very difficult with the more powerful .22-250.

Prairie Dog are Prolific Pests

Prairie dogs are great for varmint shooting because they are more prolific and more destructive than most rodents—when left to their own devices, they establish large colonies that continue to expand. In the sparse pasture of the arid West, ranchers covet their grass consumption, but prairie dog burrows are perhaps a larger problem. The deep holes are a trap for livestock, and the concrete-hard mounds defy agriculture. It is probably not possible to eradicate a town through shooting, but periodic shooting to reduce numbers offers a sound alternative to poisoning.

prairie dogs wyoming
Prairie dogs look quite innocent, but thousands of them in a single colony consume a lot of grass, and the raised mounds surrounding their burrows are like concrete, posing a serious threat to livestock and agriculture. Shooting cannot eradicate them but is an effective control.

Terrific, Tiny Targets

As far as shooting goes, prairie dogs are the best teachers! The target offered is about two by eight inches; whether vertical or horizontal depends on whether the ‘dog is standing upright or lying atop its mound. Vertical is easiest for trajectory compensation, while horizontal helps shooters practice adjusting for wind deflection. Distances are up to you and your equipment. Serious shooters often start close-in with rimfires, then work out with centerfires. At longer ranges hit percentages drop, but there’s no limit. I figure if you can hit prairie dogs consistently at 300 yards, then no shots at big game should be daunting.

Ruger .204 rifle bench shooting prairie dog hunting
With the Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger on a portable bench with sandbags and a big prairie dog town stretching into distance. There’s really no limit to how far you can try to shoot but misses to hits escalate rapidly beyond about 300 yards.

Typical shooting conditions add to the challenge! Prairie dogs are creatures of the western plains and high deserts. Calm days are few and far between, and in summer you must contend with heat waves and mirage as well as wind deflection.

Creating a Tradition: Prairie Dog Shooting with the Family

My Dad and I “discovered” prairie dogs on a pronghorn hunt in eastern Wyoming in the mid-Sixties. We ran out of ammo, and although Dad was mostly a bird hunter he never passed a chance to go prairie dog shooting! Those were different times, and you don’t know what you don’t know: Thanks to prairie dog shooting I haven’t heard a watch tick since I was 13, and I blame the sod poodles for the hearing aids I wear today. Don’t overlook ear protection!

Ruger No. One rifle shooting target
For some years Boddington’s “go to” prairie dog rifle has been this Ruger No. One in .204 Ruger. These are one-inch squares, so this rifle is a consistent half-MOA rifle…this is the kind of accuracy needed for such small targets.

Getting Back into the Habit

I used to go prairie dog shooting every May or June. I’ve shot from the Texas panhandle to eastern Montana and the Dakotas. All you really need for a great shoot is a couple of good colonies, but I think eastern Wyoming probably has the greatest numbers.

But here’s where I failed to heed my own advice: I hadn’t been to a prairie dog town in several years. One reason is that, like many rodent populations, they are subject to periodic disease. In the early 2000s, a plague knocked them way back (many ranchers were cheering!) For some years there weren’t many, and I got out of the habit.

But when my friend Gordon Marsh, host of this site and proprietor of Wholesale Hunter and LG-Outdoors, invited me to go with him on his annual prairie dog shooting trip, I swore I’d be there!

bipod rifle shooting prairie dog hunting wyoming
Gordon Marsh “takes the mound” with a CZ in .223. Gordon likes to use a bipod in the field, so he’s practicing the way he shoots. That’s good but be very careful around prairie dog mounds…rattlesnakes also like to hunt prairie dogs.

A Cross-Country Hunting Party

We were based out of Cheyenne, just two hours from the Denver airport. But, of our group, I’m the only one who came via Denver. Gordon and his wife, Alisha, drove from the Deep South, picking up Bill Green in Missouri. Ronnie Whitten and Steve Kirkpatrick flew into Cheyenne by private plane. Bill is Green Supply; Ronnie is Sports South, and Steve Kirkpatrick is VP sales of W.L. Carter Co., all “in the pipeline” between manufacturers, dealers, and consumers. So, in different ways, we were all of the firearms industry. That made it a fun group, talking about what’s selling (and what isn’t) and expounding theories as to why.

bench shooting prairie dogs in wyoming
All set up and ready to go! That’s Bill Green on his Savage .17 HMR. The .17 HMR is extremely effective at close to medium range but it doesn’t take much breeze to drift the light .17-caliber bullet.

That probably sounds like a lot of trouble for a just a few days of shooting small rodents, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! It isn’t as easy to gain access to towns as it was a half-century ago. Coming long distances from different directions, Gordon organized a wise shortcut, engaging Craig Oceanak’s Timberline Outfitters. A lot of area outfitters get summertime “plus business” by offering prairie dogs. Costs are low, with the major advantages of pre-scouted towns and secured access.

We based at the nicely renovated but still historic “Historic Plains Hotel” in downtown Cheyenne, right across the street from the old railroad depot where they hanged Tom Horn in 1903. After breakfast we met up and Craig escorted us to towns within an hour of Cheyenne. We quickly put up tarps for shade and set up benches; then it was time to go to work. There were plenty of prairie dogs, as many as I’ve seen in a long time. Honestly, I’d forgotten how much fun prairie dog hunting can be!

Pace Yourself, and Bring the Right Gear

There are lots of ways to play it. A good town can offer hours of non-stop shooting at all distances; in a really good town, you can burn out a barrel in a day if you wish. I like to take it a bit slower. Barrel-cooling (and cleaning) breaks are essential, and you probably need more than one rifle.

prairie dog hunting wyoming varmint hunting
Left to right, outfitter Craig Oceanak, seated, “supervises while Ronnie Whitten, Gordon March, and Bill Green take a barrel-cooling break. This was a huge town and we shot here most of the day…it’s good to pace yourself and avoid overheating your barrels.

Most of our guys had .17 HMRs, with a mix of .223s, .204s, and .22-250s for long-range work. I brought a left-handed Rock River AR in .223, and a Ruger No. One single shot in .204 Ruger. Portable benches and sandbags are part and parcel to prairie dog shooting; a good rest is pretty much mandatory to make hits on these tiny targets at longer ranges.

Practice for Big Game Hunts in the Field

At least some of the time I like to get away from the bench and shoot from improvised field positions. The hit percentage goes down, but this is the best practice there is for big game hunting. You won’t hit them all, but you will learn how to handle wind, and how to get steady.

For field shooting, prairie dogs really are the best teachers.

field shooting varmint hunting wyoming
Portable benches are great for precision, but I like to spend part of my time in a prairie dog town wandering around and shooting from impromptu positions. Combining a handy fence corner with my left-hand Rock River AR in .223, I’m okay to 200 yards and a bit.

My recent trip reminded me of all the benefits of prairie dog hunting—for shooters, ranchers, and businesses. As I’ve written before, summer is a great time to practice your shooting for big game trips, and my recent trip provided the perfect opportunity to do just that. The stakes aren’t high when you’re varmint hunting, so these trips provide a good avenue for building camaraderie with your fellow hunters, or for creating a new tradition with your family and friends. Finally, finding a good prairie dog hunting town can help local businesses—you’re spending your money there during slower summer months and ridding them of pests, too. I’m going to keep this in mind so I don’t fall out of the habit again, and you should, too. Give prairie dog hunting a try and learn why they’re the best teachers.