Poor Man’s Prairie Dogs

By Brian Lovett

Share on Social Share on Facebook Share on Twitter

cartridges and magazine laying on a table

Every varmint hunter dreams of days amid the vast emptiness of the Dakotas or other Western destinations, picking off seemingly endless numbers of prairie dogs. But not everyone can do that—at least not every day. That leaves a lot of home-bound varmint shooters figuratively twiddling their thumbs while wishing they were flexing their trigger fingers.

But all is not lost. Other species, situations and locations can give hunters similar—or even better—shooting experiences. Check out these “poor-man’s” options.


Anyone who lives in a rural area or even suburbia east of the Mississippi River is likely familiar with groundhogs, also called woodchucks or whistle pigs. They actually belong to a group of large ground squirrels called marmots. Common in open country and woodland edges, groundhogs use burrows for sleeping, hibernating and raising young. Those tunnels, which typically have two to five entrances, can pose serious challenges to gardens, building foundations and even residential and agricultural development. Many states don’t protect groundhogs, so varmint hunters can target them year-round. However, some states have open and closed seasons, so check regulations carefully.

Because they’re relatively large—adults measure 17 to 27 inches—and occupy open country, groundhogs aren’t especially difficult targets. However, they’re never far from their burrow entrances and are very alert when not feeding. When they sense danger, they’ll immediately retreat to their burrows or might utter a high-pitched whistle—hence the name whistle pig—to warn other groundhogs. When pressured, groundhogs can become extremely wary and will high-tail it for a hole at the first sign of danger.

shooter looking down the scope of a rifle

Varmint hunters can find success with groundhogs by staking out a burrow entrance or entrances from a good shooting position. Often, several groundhogs might emerge at about the same time, providing multiple opportunities. When you shoot one, the others might retreat to their burrows for a time but peek out soon after. The more you shoot, however, the warier surviving groundhogs become.

You can also spot and stalk groundhogs, but be careful. As mentioned, they’re extremely alert when exposed, and predator-like movement will usually send them scurrying for a burrow entrance.

Good rimfire groundhog cartridges include 22 LR, 22 WMR. and 17 HMR. CCI Gamepoint and Velocitor make excellent groundhog loads

13-Lined Ground Squirrels

These slender, rat-sized rodents inhabit many states and provinces in the central part of North America. Originally a grassland animal, they expanded their range after settlers began clearing forests and establishing pastures. And although most folks commonly see them along roadways, they also concentrate in agricultural and suburban areas.

“Thirteen-lined ground squirrels will invade golf courses, parks, lawns, athletic fields, cemeteries and similar wide-open grassy sites,” according to a paper by Edward C. Cleary, associate state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Animal Damage Control, in Sandusky, Ohio, and Scott Craven, extension wildlife specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Wildlife Ecology. “Their burrowing and feeding activity can cause major economic and aesthetic damage in such places.”

As such, 13-lined ground squirrels remain unprotected in many states. Like woodchucks, 13-lined ground squirrels dig burrows with several side channels. They emerge from burrows to feed and stand upright to look for danger. If threatened, they’ll dive back into a tunnel for safety.

Also like groundhogs, 13-liners hibernate, emerging from their dens in April or May and usually remain active until October. In especially hot areas, they might become temporarily dormant in late summer.

As when pursuing groundhogs or prairie dogs, it’s often best to identify a ground squirrel burrow or feeding site and stake out a good shooting location.

Although virtually any rimfire load is enough to dispatch a 13-lined ground squirrel, the best choices will feature a bullet that disrupts violently on impact. TNT 17 HMR, Segmented Hollow Point 22 LR and Maxi-Mag Segmented Hollow Point 22 WMR will all get the job done.

Others Still

Depending on where you live or hunt, other species of marmots or ground squirrels might offer varmint hunting opportunities. Always check regulations to see which species are unprotected in your area and which might carry special protections. Because although you might not be able to head west this summer, chances are good you can still enjoy quality varmint shooting close to home.