For every sportsman, there are certain moments when the elements of his pastime come together perfectly. The canoe breaks through the rapids. The marlin leaps. The spaniel flushes the grouse. For Duane Spooner, a North Dakota gunsmith, this ideal moment involves a rifle, a scope and a deadly long-range shot at his favorite quarry, the prairie dog. "The head goes one way," says Spooner, grinning, "the tail goes the other way, and everything in between just disappears." Spooner's son Eric, 16, shares his dad's enthusiasm. "It's relaxing," he says. "I like seeing how high they fly. We have little contests where we go out and see who can get the longest hang time on a prairie dog."
Shocking? Disgusting? Pathological? To outsiders, maybe, but not to some 2,000 devoted hunters who gathered last week in Pierre, S.D., for the annual convention of the Varmint Hunters Association. A gregarious bunch whose activities included an ice-cream social and a karaoke contest--not to mention daily shooting matches--the varminters share a passion that few outsiders can grasp.
Their sport yields no meat, no trophies, just pride in one's marksmanship and that freeze-frame moment of annihilation. "Varmint vapor" it's called by hunters. "Montana mist." "Dakota droplets." Apparently unconcerned about p.r. or the tender feelings of nonhunters, varminters have a taste for sick humor and grisly imagery. The 54,000-member V.H.A. sells T shirts that feature cartoons of exploding rodents. Its headquarters in Pierre is lined with snapshots of happy hunters and their diminutive kills. There are images of coyotes, badgers, gophers, and one large close-up of a prairie-dog carcass tumbling through the air--the same sort of pictures featured in Varmint Hunter, the association's glossy magazine.
Varminters argue that they help farmers and ranchers by killing pests that would otherwise die slowly from traps or poison. The V.H.A.'s president, Ned Kalbfleish, 50, says his critics are hypocrites who don't mind trapping mice or spraying roaches and yet threaten him with violence for stalking a creature he calls "the prairie rat." A Vietnam veteran and computer-systems analyst, Kalbfleish insists no amount of shooting can wipe out thriving prairie-dog populations, and he brands as "bad science" the Federal Government's efforts to list the creature as endangered.
If anything, the varminters say, it's they who are endangered. Chris Woods, 15, of Aurora, Colo., says he was expelled from private school for talking openly about his hunting. He's learned to keep his hobby to himself, especially in a city that's only miles from the site of the Columbine massacre. "At my age you want girlfriends, and some girls don't understand," Woods says. "Plus, our teachers are afraid we might come shoot them."
Today at the convention Woods' targets are balloons and eggs suspended on wires above the V.H.A.'s target range, and he destroys them with ease and confidence. Still, he prefers aiming at live prairie dogs. "We have competitions," he says, "to see who can flip one up onto the barbed-wire fence and hang it there."