Planning a Prairie Dog Hunt
By Deb Hinton
Nestled between the prairie grasses and the Black Hills in South Dakota, lies a region rich with heat, wind and burrowing rodents. Shooting objects ranging in height from 12 to 16 inches at an average distance of 250 yards is no easy feat. I have actively hunted prairie dogs for the past five years and have laid out a beginner’s guide, if you plan on trying this type of hunt yourself.
Highly social, prairie dogs live in large colonies or “towns,” which can span hundreds or even thousands of acres in the grasslands of North America. Colonies are easily identified by raised burrow entrance holes or mounds. Known as America’s Meerkats, prairie dogs also stand on these mounds for extra height.
Prairie dogs possess a sophisticated system of communication. It includes a variety of pitched warning barks that mean different types of predators. If you’ve ever wondered how prairie dogs got their name, earlier settlers who traveled across the plains thought the warning calls of these animals sounded like a dog’s bark.
Being able to hone in on your distance shooting is not the only benefit to this type of hunt. Hunting prairie dogs is a win-win situation between both ranchers and hunters. Prairie dogs are huge competitors for grasses cattle ranchers rely on to feed their livestock. Ranchers often allow hunting of prairie dogs to help decrease this drain on the cattle’s necessary resource.
In addition, prairie dogs are known to carry fleas and these fleas can carry the Sylvatic Plague, which if transmitted to humans, becomes the Bubonic Plague. This devastating disease, that prairie dog colonies often contract, can decimate the colonies. This is not a painless death, and it carries the ever-present risk of transmission to other mammals.
You can plan your hunt one of three ways: state land, private land or tribal reservation. If you chose to hunt state land, keep in mind there is generally more hiking involved. The closer the prairie dog towns are to the road, the likelihood it is to have been shot on, decreasing your shooting opportunities.
You can search the Internet to find your best options on what state land to hunt. State Game and Fish agencies often have good information and local offices can be helpful on locating opportunities.
On the Rosebud Indian Reservation where we chose to hunt, you need to have a tribal guide, but not all reservations require this. Make sure to check with the reservation’s hunting requirements, and before you book with a guide, check with Tribal Game & Fish for information and reviews/references. Generally, the tribe will have a list of hunting guides on their websites or at their local offices.
There may also be caliber restrictions and other requirements when hunting prairie dogs, so do some research so you remain within the confines of local regulations.
Guns & Ammo
I recommend bringing two guns, at minimum, along on your hunt. You will be doing a lot of shooting, and your barrel will need cooling time. You’ll also not want to be without a backup gun if your “one and only” gun malfunctions.
A 17 HMR and a 223 will be more than enough to satisfy your needs with the ranges you will be shooting. I recommend the Savage Arms B17 FV chambered in 17 HMR and a heavy barreled 223 Rem. Being reliant on just a rimfire rifle can be a severe hindrance on windy days, which are prolific on the prairie. Choosing low-cost calibers like 17 HMR and 223 will allow you to shoot more rounds at lower cost than cartridges like 22-250 or 220 Swift.
Personally, my go-to gun is a 223 AR-15 platform custom-build (20-inch heavy barrel). With this I can shoot prairie dogs all day out to 500 yards when the wind is cooperative. When I want to truly test my long-range abilities, or experience gusty or high winds, my personal go-to is a custom-built Remington 700 chambered in 243 Ackley Improved (AI). The 243 AI is a 243 cartridge with the shoulder and body taper increased to allow more powder capacity, but does require handloading. This cartridge allows me increased velocity, which helps to counter the wind. I reload all ammo for my 243 AI using Reloder 17 powder and Speer 87g bullets, which push my velocity over 3,600 fps.
Quality optics can make or break your trip, so buy quality glass. Spending the day looking through a cheap pair of binoculars or a shoddy spotting scope is miserable. A good range finder is likewise crucial in leveling up your shooting average as knowing the range is a huge advantage since distances on the prairie are deceptive.
I recommend equipping your guns with a MIL-Dot reticle scope. If you are not accustomed to a MIL-Dot reticle, it can be a challenge at first, but it will make things a lot easier in the long run when you have to adjust for windage and yardage. They truly help with long range shooting when you are dialing in on the last few inches. In my experience, you do not need a scope that has more than 15x magnification. High magnification optics are often rendered useless due to the effect of heat mirage. Both of my primary rifles are equipped with Weaver Tactical 3-15x50mm MIL-Dot Reticles.
Make sure to pack the basics for gun cleaning and maintenance: cleaning rods, cleaning rags and gun oil. After hunting the past few years, I am not certain there is a thing called “too much” ammo. Make sure to bring enough ammo. I bring out at least 500 rounds for each of my guns, but depending on the quality of shooting, round counts can extend as high as 1,500 rounds for a three-day hunt.
Shooting benches and shooting mats are recommended, although you can do a lot with a good bipod. We do a lot of sitting and prone shooting; make sure to have a bipod for each. Shooting bags and a shooting rest are also great things to have, especially when it gets windy, but they do take up precious packing space.
Be prepared to carry a pack with your shooting mat, bipod, ammo, one or more guns, plus hydration. It can be a lot to carry on a hot day and being out in the blazing sun for hours takes its toll on your body.
The best type of weather for hunting prairie dogs is clear, sunny blue skies. The more sun and heat, the better. It is not uncommon to have hotter than 90-degree days and 50-degree nights. You’ll need to plan on gear for both. I cannot stress enough to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Between the wind and sun, it is extremely easy to become dehydrated fast. Make sure to use a good quality sunscreen and wear a hat to keep the sun off your face and head. I always wear boots when I am out in the field, especially with rattlesnakes in the area.
This place doesn’t look like much at first with its desert-like appearance, but from the shimmering wave of grasses to beautiful colors of wild flowers, it is about the small things out here. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a sharp-tailed grouse dancing in your binoculars, calf antelope scampering through the grasses or burrowing owls flying between mounds. It is not just about the hunting, it is about the unspoken beauty we get to see on these treasured outings, the guides that turn into friends and the lasting memories you create.
Deb Hinton is an avid hunter from Princeton, Minnesota. She loves to shoot pheasants, deer and miss ducks. She is a casual competition shooter and enjoys all aspects of being outdoors, including fishing, hiking and foraging.