by John Barsness
AMONG the wide variety of wild animals hunted in the American west are ground squirrels of various species. The yellow-bellied and hoary marmots (genus Marmota) are the largest western ground squirrels, and the next-largest are prairie dogs (Cynomys). Then there are several species of smaller ground squirrels (Urocitellus or Otospermophilus) ranging from Baja California up into Canada and east across the high plains. All ground squirrels tend to live in colonies, the reason they can become huge agricultural pests — and the reason landowners often welcome varmint hunters.
The hoary marmot, however, primarily lives in mountainous regions far above cultivated land, so rarely causes problems. Yellow-bellied marmots prefer rocky hillsides for their burrows (the reason they’re called rockchucks), but can also live in log-piles and even burrow in open ground, like prairie dogs and ground squirrels. I once hunted a central Idaho farm with so many rockchucks close to 100 acres of one wheatfield was eaten down to bare dirt. Yellow-bellies aren’t as big as hoary marmots, or eastern groundhogs (woodchucks) but can still weigh over 10 pounds, though most are smaller, down to about the three pounds of large prairie dogs. Rockchucks are also the only western ground squirrel that can be locally wiped out by shooting, though not in large chunks of prime habitat like the volcanic Snake River Plain in southern Idaho.
Prairie dogs are often found in open valleys of the Rockies, where the white-tailed species lives above 5000 feet in elevation, but the biggest towns cover huge areas of the high plains, and are usually black tailed prairie dogs. A decade ago I once hunted a ranch in eastern Montana where prairie dogs infested every inch of six sections of land. That’s six square miles!
Still, some people insist prairie dogs are “endangered” because they don’t inhabit nearly the territory they did when white people first explored the American west. There’s a good reason: Much of it is now covered by towns, ranches and farms, and prairie dogs are incompatible to all three, partly because they often carry sylvatic plague, a variety of bubonic plague, and partly because they love to eat crops like wheat and alfalfa, plus the grass cattle graze. While at least one “study” claimed prairie dogs improved cattle range by aerating the soil and keeping grass eaten down to its more palatable stages, in a lot of prairie dog country the grass is eaten down to bare dirt, especially in dry years, so can’t even grow a goat, much less a cow. (As somebody once remarked during a prairie dog discussion, “You can buy any study you want these days.”)
However, much prairie dog shooting is expeditionary, partly because plague sometimes wipes out local populations. While a couple of very small prairie dog towns are within an hour of where I live in southwestern Montana, real shooting requires driving at least two hours east or north, and the biggest towns are in the eastern half of the state, four or more hours away. Varmint shooters from West Coast states have to drive a day or two to hunt prairie dogs in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.
The most wide-spread colony-dwelling ground squirrels, however, are the numerous smaller species. Just about all the western states have some smaller ground squirrels, and as a result they’re the most commonly hunted varmint. They go by different names in various parts of the west. Here they’re called gophers, but in other states they’re sage rats and flickertails and some other names I’ve never heard or forgotten.
Montana has two species. Richardson’s ground squirrels look like miniature prairie dogs. They’re found in most of the 2/3 of the state east of the continental divide except the southeastern corner, but in many areas live only in “island” mountain ranges, with prairie dogs down on the flats. Columbians mostly live west of the divide, though a few spill over, and are gray with reddish highlights, with a bushy tail about half the size of a typical tree squirrel’s.
Both species can be found around our small town, but the Columbians live only in the mountains in very small colonies, so there’s no real reason to shoot them. The Richardson’s is the pest around here, and there are a few small hayfields and pastures where Eileen (leenie3freezers on the ‘Fire) and I can shoot for an hour or two. But ground squirrel shooting is also one of the more social kinds of varmint hunting, so at least once or twice a year we travel an hour or so to hunt all day with our friend Kirk, on the Campfire known as Shrapnel, a nickname awarded by gun writer Mike Venturino because Shrapnel has blown up a gun or two.
Rockchuck and prairie dog hunters mostly use centerfires, because of the size of the targets and the ranges. It’s not a bad idea to start out on a prairie dog town with a rimfire, because the quieter report won’t send nearby dogs into their holes like the blast of a .223 or .22-250, but very few rockchuck shooters use anything other than centerfires. The .22 Long Rifle isn’t very effective except with very precise shots at close range, and even the .22 Magnum isn’t a sure stopper beyond 100 yards, and most rockchucks are shot beyond 100.
But rimfires are the traditional ground squirrel rounds, both because they’re effective and relatively low-cost. In fact, before the present rimfire shortage many Montana ranchers offered to supply .22 Long Rifle ammo to anybody who wanted to shoot their hayfields and pastures. Serious gopher shooters, however, also use other rimfires, especially the .17’s, plus smaller centerfires. Once in a while we even bring along a real prairie dog rifle, just to get it warmed up for a serious expedition further east.
This year we hunted north of Bozeman, where Shrapnel and I were raised, and he brought along his friend John, known on the Campfire as Rancho Loco, who I’d wanted to meet for a while. Rancho and leenie3freezers and I each brought three rifles, a mix of rimfires and centerfires, but Shrapnel brought what seemed like a dozen, though it may have only been 7-8.
Flatter-shooting rimfires and several smaller centerfires have been introduced in the past dozen years, fitting right in with traditional gopher cartridges such the .22 Long Rifle and .22 Hornet. Some people even use the .223 Remington on gophers, though often with reduced loads, since shooting over 200 yards isn’t common — or very effective, since gophers are so small. I’ve heard people brag about 300-400 yard gophers, and I’ve shot some at those ranges myself, but most gopher shooting is pest control. If we spend much time whacking away at distant gophers so we can claim long-range hits, we don’t eliminate as many gophers, and the landowner isn’t as happy.
I’ve also heard a lot of prairie dog shooters brag about 500-yard kills, and often much further (my own personal record is 820, but some have shot PD’s out to a mile or more), but I’ve shot prairie dogs with famous military snipers and world-record benchrest competitors and have yet to run into anybody who under typical conditions who can hit more prairie dogs than they miss much beyond 300 yards. “Typical” out here means at least a five mph breeze and more often 8-12 mph, usually erratic and often swirling. Oh, once in a while a really calm day comes along, and 500-600 yard prairie dogs can be hit more consistently, but such days are rare.
Similarly, while gophers can be hit at 300+ yards, hitting more than missing is rare past 200, especially later in spring, when the grass is higher, obscuring much of the target, and most gophers are juveniles, half the size of the one-pound adults. What ranchers and farmers (or as leenie3freezers sometimes calls both, farchers) really want to see is as many dead gophers as possible, and for that restricting ranges to under 200 yards is far more effective.
There’s relatively little “hunting” involved, though if possible a sunny day is preferred, since like prairie dogs and rockchucks gophers become nervous and often head underground when they can’t see the shadows of approaching birds of prey. It’s also easier to spot gophers in rolling or hilly country rather than on flat fields, especially after March and April, when they’ll often emerge from hibernation through snow, and grass and hay are still very short. You can often call them up with a short, sharp whistle, their “all-clear” social call. You’ll hear it soon enough on a good gopher field, but if you can’t imitate it with your own mouth, blowing across the mouth of an empty cartridge case usually works. (This once got my friend John Haviland into trouble. He grew up in far western Montana, where there aren’t any prairie dogs. On his first prairie dog shoot he started whistling to make them stand up, but for prairie dogs a whistle is an alarm call. Instead he sent all the dogs within hearing range into their holes, and his shooting companions cussed him out.)
But mostly you just wander, either in a pickup or on foot, shooting at targets of opportunity. Gophers aren’t nearly as spooky as prairie dogs, even if they’ve been shot at before, and in abundant years taking several hundred shots a day is common. When Eileen and I lived in central Montana, one spring after a very mild winter there were so many gophers that driving certain sections of the local blacktop highway was distinctly bumpy due to all the carcasses. That year a friend from back East came out to shoot with us, and we parked our pickup in the middle of a creekbottom alfalfa field between rocky cliffs. He and I shot rockchucks all day with centerfires, while Eileen shot ground squirrels with a .22 — and we never moved the pickup.
On this particular shoot Eileen brought two .22 rimfire rifles, her open-sighted Henry lever-action and scope-sighted Anschutz Model 54 sporter, one of the rifles imported by Savage in the 1960’s and 70’s, and her brand-new Sisk adjustable-stock STAR rifle with the .22-250 barrel attached. (It also has .257 Roberts and .308 Winchester barrels.) She hadn’t shot it in the field yet, so tried the combination of the 40-grain Ballistic Tip and CHE223 that shot so well in her Savage Axis .22-250. The load also shot extremely well in the STAR, and at over 4300 fps left no doubt when a gopher was hit.
Most of her shooting, however, was with the Anschutz. It’s naturally very accurate, even with the Federal Champion “bulk pack” hollow-points she usually uses on gophers. To be honest, I’m kind of astonished when other shooters say this cheap ammo doesn’t shoot well for them, since we’ve had good luck with I in several rifles. In the Anschutz it regularly groups five shots inside half an inch at 50 yards, often with all holes touching, and also shoots into about an inch at 50 in the Henry.
I brought a pair of CZ’s, one a 452 in .17 Mach 2 picked up last year after gopher season. I’ve always liked the Mach 2 for gophers, but my first didn’t shoot very well, especially after a few dozen rounds, unusual for a Mach 2. I eventually dumped it and found the CZ used but in almost-new condition. While sighting in with Hornady 17-grain V-Max ammo, it put its last five shots into .31” at 50 yards.
The .17 Mach 2 and the Federal Champion .22 hollow-points put gophers down very similarly. Unlike the flips and splats from centerfire hits, the little rimfires just drop gophers right there. The big advantage of the Mach 2 is the flatter trajectory: Sighted-in half an inch high at 50 yards, it’s dead-on at 100 and you can pretty much hold right on to 120, which covers at least 90% of gopher shooting, while the .22 Long Rifle has a far more curved trajectory, even with higher-velocity ammo. These days .17 Mach 2 ammo doesn’t cost that much more than .22 Long Rifle, and while a little rare there was a bunch showed up this spring in Montana, so I supplemented my already adequate supply. (By the way, the Hornady 17-grain V-Max load is made in the CCI factory, the exact same load is also sold as CCI, Federal and Remington.)
The other CZ was a Model 527 in .17 Hornady Hornet, purchased last year just before gopher season. Back then all I had was factory ammo, which proved super-accurate, averaging five shots in half an inch or so at 100 yards — and also highly effective in the field. This year I shot it with handloads using reformed Winchester .22 Hornet brass, 20-grain Nosler Varmageddon Tips, and 12.0 grains of Accurate 1680 for just about the same 3600 fps of the factory load.
It worked great again, and made the longest shot I tried, right at 200 yards. I really like this rifle for gophering: The 22” barrel measures almost ¾” across at the muzzle, giving it good balance for offhand shots, but the rifle still only weighs 8-1/2 pounds with a Burris Signature 3-10x scope. The single-set trigger breaks at just over a pound, and the recoil’s so mild you can easily spot your own shots through the scope. Plus, with the Varmageddons and only 12 grains of powder, it’s pretty cheap to shoot. I would call it my ideal gopher centerfire if Hornady hadn’t suspended production of brass until the present super-demand dies down a little. But the .22 Hornet also works great as a gopher centerfire, especially with 40-grain plastic-tips started at 3000 fps or so with Li’l Gun.
My third rifle was a Mannlicher-stocked Sako L461.222 Remington picked up earlier this spring at Capital Sports & Western Wear in Helena, Montana. I’d always wanted a Sako .222, but opportunity and my rifle budget had never coincided before. The full-length stock makes it balance nicely even with the 20-inch barrel, and the trigger breaks very cleanly at just under two pounds.
There wasn’t much time to try different loads, so I threw together some 40-grain Ballistic Tips with H4198, one of the most popular powders for the .222 during its reign at the top of the benchrest world before the PPC cartridges came along in the mid-1970’s. I only tried 3-shot groups in my hurry to get a gopher load together, and it shot into ½” to ¾” with every powder charge. I settled on 21.5 grains, one-tenth of a grain over Hodgdon’s listed maximum, for about 3400 fps, which of course worked great in the field — though it kicked a little too much to watch the action through the scope. I’ve grown very fond of rifle/cartridge combinations that allow watching over the past decade, which not only helps in correcting the hold — somebody else calling the shots isn’t nearly as accurate — but is a lot more fun.
Rancho Loco brought a Sako Quad with a .17 HMR barrel, and a Tikka .223 Remington. (He brought something else as well, but those are the only two I remember him shooting.) Both have synthetic stocks, and we had a good time telling Shrapnel that his fancy custom-stocked Sakos and pre-’64 Model 70 .22 Hornet were vastly inferior to Rancho’s rifles, especially when it rained for a while late in the morning.
Between Shrapnel’s several rifles, Rancho Loco’s Quad and my .222 we may have had the single biggest collection of Sakos in Gallatin County that morning. Shrapnel did a lot of shooting with his new-to-him .17 Remington, more gun than required for gophers but hey, when somebody has a new varmint rifle they have to try it on what’s available, whether a Sako .17 or .222, or a Sisk STAR .22-250. Contrary to the many rumors about the .17 Remington, Shrapnel’s rifle kept on shooting well all day, though we also kept joking about the bore plugging up with fouling. I believe he used the Hornady 20-grain V-Max and Big Game, a very clean-burning spherical powder. (I always learn something from Shrapnel on any rodent expedition. He taught me about the vast superiority of plastic-tipped bullets a few years ago, and now there’s this clean-burning Ramshot powder that slides easily through .17 caliber case necks.)
I’ve done a lot of varmint shooting in various places over the years, from West Virginia to Texas to several other western states, but these days gophers are my favorite. The weather’s usually good, you usually don’t have to get up at dark-thirty, and ground squirrels are so cooperative you can socialize with friends while shooting a lot with cartridges that don’t kick. What’s not to like?