By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
It's a sunny morning, with no clouds overhead--a perfect day for shooting prairie dogs. Mark Mason is dressed in Carhart coveralls and a camouflage cap emblazoned with the logo of his group, the Varmint Militia. Patches decorate his khaki jacket: One has the NRA insignia and the other, which bears the image of a prairie dog, is a token from the Varmint Hunter's Association, a national organization whose members shoot small animals for sport.
Four men meet at the Lochbuie Texaco station before driving out to the Fort Lupton ranch where today's shoot is to happen. But after the contents of one driver's truck fall out of the back, he and his passenger must turn around and pick up the debris that has spilled into the intersection of two county roads. Mason and his companion, Oliver, keep driving. Their two friends never show.
The owner of the ranch has requested Mason's pro bono extermination because he wants to prevent the prairie dogs on his neighbor's land from encroaching onto his. After Mason and Oliver pull up to the end of a dirt road on the ranch, they unload the brown Ford Bronco stocked with guns and ammo.
Oliver is also clad in camouflage, and his ears are lined with silver hoops. He puts on protective ear muffs and sits down at a bench. Oliver loads his Savage rifle with a .22 caliber bullet, cocks the gun, looks through the scope and...BOOM! From his vantage point of 175 yards, all he can see is the dust from where his bullet skimmed the ground. He missed.
Mason, who has been shooting from a rifle propped on the hood of the Bronco, takes a turn at the shooting bench. He has better luck. "I got him in the head," he announces. "You can tell when you hit 'em in the head, because their legs kick."
He's right. Mason crosses the barbed-wire fence separating the ranch from the neighboring property and finds his kill. He bends down and rubs the prairie dog's full belly. The pregnant female is lying on her back, in the last pose she will ever strike. Half her head is missing. Fresh blood glistens in the midday sun.
"We are a true militia," Mason says, "because we are being called to defend farmers from the true invaders: the prairie dogs."
Mason, who builds custom homes when he's not killing prairie dogs, was inspired to establish the Varmint Militia after watching a Nucla prairie-dog-killing contest; the first such contest was the July 1990 Nucla Top Dog World Championship, sponsored by the Ten Ring Gun Club. The event drew more than 100 "hunters" from eleven states to the tiny Western Slope town, where contestants each paid a $100 entry fee; $7,000 in prizes were awarded, and the rest of the proceeds were donated to the ailing mining town. Each participant was allowed fifty shots a day, and by the end of the two-day shooting spree, almost 3,000 prairie dogs had been slain.
Mason thought the concept was "pretty cool"--so cool that in 1993 he brought his daughter, who was eight at the time, and his nine-year-old son, to another Nucla contest. Because the shooting captured the attention of his kids--his daughter shoots an SKS assault rifle--Mason decided to start his own shooting contests and market them to children, but the fliers he displayed at gun shows attracted only adults. In 1995 he held a Nucla Tune-Up Prairie Dog Shoot in preparation for that year's contest, which was canceled because the prairie dog colony had been wiped out by plague. "That put us on the map, because no one had anywhere left to go shooting," says Mason.
He named his group the Varmint Militia, he says, because he "wanted to piss off the animal-rights activists. Of course animals don't have any rights. Just look at what they do to each other. They eat each other."
In July 1997, the Colorado Wildlife Commission limited the number of prairie dogs that could be killed by any one shooter in a contest to five. That doesn't make for much of a competition, according to Mason, who says shooters typically kill 100 prairie dogs over the course of a two-day match. Though the Varmint Militia no longer holds contests, its members still shoot the animals for farmers and ranchers who want to get rid of them. It's a public service they perform for free.
"These animal-rights people elevate animals to the level of humans, but animals are simple creatures. The animal-rights people attack us on an emotional level by saying we're killing the 'poor, cute prairie dogs,'" Mason says, emphasizing the last four words in a mocking, singsong voice. "They don't attack us on the basis of facts. The fact is that we're helping provide a balance in nature. If you say my shooting isn't a part of nature, you're ignorant. Man is a part of nature, and so is anything man does."
Mason says the dead animals are not wasted because scavengers eat the carcasses left behind after a shoot. "We call ourselves the fast-food delivery service of the plains."
He hails his shooting as a "high-end" sport. Mason's two Savage rifles, which take .25-06 Ackley improved cartridges, each cost $430. Ammunition for a day of shooting can run him $50. His rifles, however, are on the low-end, concedes a modest Mason: Some prairie dog shooters spend upwards of $1,500 on their guns.