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Varmints leads viewers to unavoidable conclusion: Let the critters live

Furry friends or ranch rats?

To some, prairie dogs just couldn't be any cuter, living communally in so-called prairie dog towns, warning each other of danger with little chirps and chasing each other during playtime. To others, prairie dogs are varmints ruining the soil, eating all the grass and creating a nuisance for farmers and ranchers.

Varmints, a documentary film by the Missoula-based Ecology Center, presents an often humorous and sobering view of the emerging controversy over the effect prairie dog's have on the environment. Director Doug Hawes-Davis uses a montage of interviews with people from all sides of the issue from prairie dog hunters to government officials to animal lovers.

It's tough to sympathize with the rodent militia when you've seen Varmints.

Those in favor of shooting, poisoning or otherwise managing prairie dogs argue the varmints eat too much grass, leaving cattle with little food. They add that the prairie dog population is exploding and their burrows create hazards for horses and cattle that might break a leg by stepping in a hole.

But the bulk of the interviews conducted question such assumptions. Friends of the furry creatures say they should be protected by the government under the Endangered Species Act because today's population represents a mere 2 percent of what once was believed to exist. They add that prairie dogs are keystone species and without them, the Great Plains would not even exist.

The filmmakers don't hold anything back. Not only do we meet nearly everybody involved in this controversy, we get to see them in action

Some might expect to sympathize with the ranchers who have to deal with the rodents, but the clips of shooters sporting their high-powered rifles, mingled with shots of vulnerable prairie dogs nibbling grass outside their burrows, leaves no option but to consider the marksmen monsters.

From the outset, I was-like most other viewers I expect-just crying out for the cute critters to be saved. Hunters sit and wait for prairie dogs to pop up from their holes. Then they blow them into a thousand pieces. The filmmakers let us in on the conversations of these hunters, who claim they are the true militia because they are defending the land from invaders.

Other hunters are just taking the easy route; one says, "I used to shoot big game, deer and stuff, but it's too much work."

If that isn't enough to warrant protection, archival footage from the early part of this century shows the systematic poisoning of the so-called varmints by government agencies, complete with shots of prairie dogs piled on top of each other after they are killed.

On a note of criticism, it should be said none of the speakers are identified until the film's end, leaving the viewer questioning the credibility of each source. This was especially problematic when scenes alternated showing people directly contradicting each other.

I was left wondering who was the expert and where was the truth. But if the not-so-subtle bias is any indication, the truth is prairie dogs aren't just cute, but fill an important ecological niche without harming ranchers or their cattle.

Varmints, a documentary film about prairie dogs, shows at the Urey Lecture Hall at the University of Montana on Wednesday, December 2, at 7 p.m. Not suitable for children under 15. $3.

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