Sharp-shooting prairie dogs in South Dakota with a truck-mounted professional-grade shooting stand.
Some years back, I was lurking on several boards and list-servs when PETA came out with an advertising campaign against dairy milk. The folks over at FOL (Foxhunters On Line) went nuts. To listen to them talk, this was the end of the world and PETA's silly campaign was proof that the Anti-Christ was coming.
Over on the Dairy Management list, however, everyone yawned at the PETA campaign, and the talk quickly moved on to more germane matters such as the best low-grade slope to have on a loafing shed (3 percent as I recall).
The point here is that one embattled group -- the fox hunters -- freaked out, squawking like pet store parrots next to a slamming screen door. The dairy folks, on the other hand, knew One True Thing, which is that America will always drink milk.
I was recently reminded of these two divergent reactions when Outdoor Life columnist and Big Game Hunter Jim Zumbo posted a short rant to his blog concerning the use of semi-automatic "assault" rifles to shoot prairie dogs.
The gun community went nuts. Outdoor Life promptly fired Zumbo, and everyone in the Mainstream Media was quick to pronounce Zumbo -- a modest man with a small column in a magazine most people do not read -- as economic toast.
It seems all sides wanted to martyr Zumbo for their own purposes. The black-helicopter-spying, UN-hating, survivalist wing nuts wanted a martyr so they could show that they were powerful. The granola-eating, foreign-aid-giving lefties who assume all depravity is due to deprivation wanted a martyr so that they could prove that the "Gun Nuts" were as myopic, intellectually shallow and intolerant as anyone who ever served on a Taliban governing council.
The editors at Outdoor Life, of course, simply wanted to continue to pimp out America for their corporate advertisers. Zumbo must die so that another ad for something you do not need can be tossed into a land fill at the end of the month.
What no one seems to have actually asked is what was Zumbo actually trying to say in his blog? This is, after all, a man who has spent his entire life buying, carrying, cleaning and firing guns. He has shot deer in every state of the Union and knows how to skin a bear with a pocket knife. Is it really possible he woke up one morning possessed by the demon spirit of PETA-founder Ingrid Newkirk? I seriously doubt it.
While a lot has been written about "L'affaire Zumbo," I think most writers have missed the point -- perhaps because not too many of them actually read what Jim Zumbo said.
Here's a little of that original missive:
"While at the SHOT Show recently, I ran into a guy who complained that too many hunters were taking excessively long shots. He’s an outfitter, and witnessed plenty of people shooting at elk at distances greater than 350 yards. He suggested that that was too far, primary because the majority of those hunters had no clue of ballistics. Most were 'Hail Mary' shots. I agree. We read about people making 500 yard shots and more, and that, to me, is ridiculous.
Then at the SCI convention last week, I talked to a guy who bragged that his custom gun kills deer out at 800 yards and better. To each his own, I suppose, but that isn’t hunting. It’s shooting. And I don’t care how great a marksman you are. The risk of wounding an animal at extremely long ranges is high, and where’s the sportsmanship, the ethics, the satisfaction of taking outrageously long shots? I understand there’s a group in PA that shoots deer at 1,000 yards and more. More power to them. Just don’t ask me to support that kind of 'hunting.'”
Zumbo was making a point: there's a difference between shooting and hunting. We do not call range-shooting hunting, and we do not call skeet-shooting hunting.
In the English language, hunting means something and we all know it, and should be working to preserve and protect it.
Now, where Zumbo strayed on to thin ice is when he began to talk about marmots. I know something about marmots, and I think a man like Zumbo should just leave them the hell alone.
Marmots, you see, are a special problem. While Zumbo the Great White Hunter is definitely the man you want with you shooting elk in the field, he is not the man you want leading a charge into the dangerous thicket known as marmot politics.
In Zumbo's defense, let me point out that he is not the first ship to wreck on these rocks. In the last election cycle, when my friend Andy (a great Medicaid policy mechanic) stopped by my office to tell me he was going to South Dakota to work on the Rosebud Indian Reservation as an election monitor, I was the first one to give him the bad news: Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota was political toast. Andy wanted to know why I thought so. "Simple," I said, "He's soft on Marmots."
Andy thought I was kidding. He gave me a weird look (I get those a lot), and changed the topic to something I might have real expertise in: the pricing of anti-psychotic medications.
When Andy came back two weeks later, however, he admitted I was right. "The entire election hinged on marmots," he said. "Marmots!" He was amazed. I was not.
Prairie dogs have long been an emotional issue in parts of the West. In truth, these little animals do no harm and quite a lot of good. Of course, that's not the way cattlemen see them. In arid and marginal country, ranchers are always anxious to blame their misfortunes on something more tangible than the weather, and so they take it out on coyotes, prairie dogs and the IRS, not one of which has the slightest impact on a herd of Angus.
While government-sponsored poisoning is the main cause of prairie dog mortality, recreational shooters also have an impact.
Notice what I called these folks -- shooters. They are not hunters. A prairie dog colony does not move. This year it will be exactly where it was last year, and the year before that. There is no "hunting" for prairie dogs.
Nor is there any woodcraft involved. The shooter knows nothing about marmots nor does he care about them. For the shooter, marmots are simply a small target shot from a great distance.
If you hang out on the prairie-dog and groundhog-shooting sections of varmint-hunting bulletin boards and list-servs, you will find that these folks do not talk about the gestation period of their respective marmots, the symbiotic relationship between the prairie dog and the buffalo, the depth of the burrows, the importance of prairie dogs to black-footed ferrets, or the call structure (both audible and sub-sonic) of marmots. A marmot shooter does not know -- or care -- about these kinds of things.
What interests the prairie dog shooter is not the prairie dog, but the ballistics -- the grains of gunpowder used, the feet-per-second, the effect of wind, and the flatness of the trajectory.
Prairie dog shooters have a fetish for physics. The animal itself is simply a convenient excuse to drive out into the countryside with a couple of sandwiches, a cooler full of beer, and a few small sandbags to help steady the barrel on the hood of a car or portable bench.
Zumbo does not "get it" because he is a hunter, and not a sniper. Zumbo seeks to be involved with the animal and its habitat, while the prairie dog sniper cannot be bothered to leave the hood of his car.
While Zumbo's idea of a proper gun is a well-made bolt action rifle or shotgun with a carefully engraved walnut stock and a history behind it, the prairie dog shooter prefers high-end technology and may even be living a kind of Walter Mitty fantasy, with himself as the deeply embedded Marine Corps sharpshooter, and the prairie dog serving as a proxy for the commandant of a Viet Cong prisoner of war camp. Pull the trigger and you get a "red mist" either way.
In truth, there is a fine line between a hunting rifle and a weapon of war. Vietnam-era snipers used to go into the field with their own guns -- carefully calibrated bolt-action hunting rifles originally crafted for deer. Today's military, of course, has specialized sniper rifles, but in truth some of the better off-the-shelf semi-autos like the AR-15 are about as good a shot as the old Vietnam-era sniping rifles. And so they are used by a certain percentage of prairie dog Fantasy Camp snipers, never mind that using a military-looking semi-auto on a prairie dog looks more than a little bit ridiculous.
Zumbo was remarking about this ridiculousness in his since-removed blog posting.
Now a prairie dog is just as dead with a .17 Hornady as he is with a AR-15 (or even a grenade), but is there anyone in the modern era who thinks image does not matter? Do not ALL of us in the hunting community bear the burden of being forced to carry the dead weight of the most reckless things that the stupidest among us do?
That is what Zumbo was trying to say, and here is what he wrote:
"As I write this, I’m hunting coyotes in southeastern Wyoming with Eddie Stevenson, PR Manager for Remington Arms, Greg Dennison, who is senior research engineer for Remington, and several writers. We’re testing Remington’s brand new .17 cal Spitfire bullet on coyotes.
I must be living in a vacuum. The guides on our hunt tell me that the use of AR and AK rifles have a rapidly growing following among hunters, especially prairie dog hunters. I had no clue. Only once in my life have I ever seen anyone using one of these firearms.
I call them 'assault' rifles, which may upset some people. Excuse me, maybe I’m a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity. I’ll go so far as to call them 'terrorist' rifles. They tell me that some companies are producing assault rifles that are 'tackdrivers.'
Sorry, folks, in my humble opinion, these things have no place in hunting. We don’t need to be lumped into the group of people who terrorize the world with them, which is an obvious concern. I’ve always been comfortable with the statement that hunters don’t use assault rifles. We’ve always been proud of our 'sporting firearms.'
This really has me concerned. As hunters, we don’t need the image of walking around the woods carrying one of these weapons. To most of the public, an assault rifle is a terrifying thing. Let’s divorce ourselves from them. I say game departments should ban them from the prairies and woods."
Now where Zumbo overstepped the mark is in the last line. You don't need the last line. You see, if Zumbo -- who spends a heck of a lot of time in forest and field shooting and hunting -- has not actually seen assault rifles in the woods and fields, is there really a problem?
I think not.
The good news is that these assault-rifles (or look-a-likes of the same) are mostly in the hands of wanna-be tough guys, ballistic shooters, and a few kids who would be quickly laughed out of deer camp if they showed up with one.
The simple truth is that if you need a 32-round banana clip to kill a deer, you are a joke on legs and no one is going to go hunting with you -- ever.
But the Ballistics Boys who shoot prairie dogs are not hunters. They are shooters, and among this particular tribe, there appears to be a few who are a little low in common sense and a little over-caffeinated to boot.
Apparently there are more than a handful of Walter Mitty fantasy snipers who want to use an AR-15 Bushmaster -- the gun made infamous by D.C.-beltway sniper John Allen Mohamed -- to shoot prairie dogs.
No doubt they also put grease paint under their eyes to cut the glare, and slip on genuine Vietnam-era camouflage before they pretend to be muscular Green Beret commandos on patrol in the Laotian Highlands. Never mind that they are actually pudgy office workers shooting 3-pound marmots on BLM land in Colorado.
Real hunters like Zumbo tend to go the opposite direction. Instead of looking for more fire power and more accuracy, a good shot who really knows the land and his abilities may handicap himself a little bit in order to increase the challenge. He will not shoot over bait. He may chose to hunt wild turkey with an ancient French-built .16 gauge rather than a brand new American-made .12 gauge. He may forgo a high-powered scope, or lower the caliber on his rifle.
True experts handicap themselves in all sports, from cards and golf, to fishing and hunting. The fastest growth in hunting today, I am happy to say, is in the area of black powder shooting -- the very antithesis of semi-automatic fire power. At a time when the entire nation seems to be neck-deep in whitetail deer and turkey, the average hunter is not trying to ramp up for slaughter, but trying to dial down to keep an element of sport in the game.
So was Zumbo wrong? Not at all. Shooting wild game with an AR-15 is such tremendous over-kill that no one needs to say it, and damn few are actually doing it.
Sure there are always going to be some redneck idiots who want to play Rambo, but the proper response is not to legislate or to litigate, but to laugh out loud, draw a few cartoons, and make a joke to their face about the need to "overcompensate for their inadequacies" (And by that you mean shooting inadequacies. If they want to take it another way, that's their problem).
It is a simple truth, that mockery often works better than manifesto.
There is no need to legislate AR-15s from the woods, when laughter alone will work just fine.
- To read more on this topic, see "The Zumbo Flap" by net-friend Steve Bodio (author of Good Guns and many other fine books) and "More Zumbo" by net-friend Matt Mullenix (author of In Season: A Louisiana Falconer's Journal)