Peter Shelton

The Dogs of Nucla

Posted in Animal Dreams, How the West was Lost, Watch columns by pshelton on May 30, 2013

Twenty-one years ago, the microscopic town of Nucla (population 711), at the west end of Montrose County, garnered national attention for its Top Dog World Championship Prairie Dog Shoot.

The inaugural event, in July 1992, drew 100 sharpshooters from 11 states, competing over two days to see who could pick off the most “dogs” at long range.

In most of the rural West, a weekend devoted to reducing the varmints’ numbers would hardly warrant notice. Ranchers have long considered the three-pound squirrel relatives a nuisance when they “infest” their fields. If there are enough of them, the rodents can indeed compete with livestock for the available feed. Their “towns,” their holes and interconnected tunnels, can disrupt irrigation. And, some ranchers claim, though the proof is elusive, that cattle and horses have snapped leg bones stepping in the critters’ holes. Managing prairie dogs, by poisoning, or drowning, or shooting them, was never very controversial.

But, when down-and-out Nucla, and its Ten Ring Gun Club (with co-sponsorship from Varmint Hunter magazine), decided to make a competitive sport of it, all heck broke loose. The first event drew more protesters, animal rights activists, and media trucks than it did competitors. Nucla loved the attention. For a brief while anyway, business boomed. According to People magazine, Mortician Joe Hale sold 150 “prairie dog coffins” at $35 each. Norma’s Chuckwagon Café did a roaring trade in “prairie dog legs” (chicken wings) in three flavors: “ready,” “aim” and “fire.” The Yellow Rock Café down the hill added “prairie dog [hot dog] on a stick” to its menu. And just outside town a hand-lettered sign read: WE WASTE ‘EM, YOU TASTE ‘EM. PRAIRIE DOG STEW.

If the goal of the shoot was two-pronged, to eradicate unwanted pests and generate tourist buzz at the same time, they certainly succeeded. One Main Street merchant told reporters, “We’re talking about some kind of incentive program to get the protesters out here again next year.”

Some of the protesters came from Telluride, an hour’s drive to the east. Telluride has its own prairie dog problem. A few years back, the community bought hundreds of acres of the so-called Valley Floor at the entrance to town. It turned out the Valley Floor was home to a colony of Gunnison’s prairie dogs, and those dogs were not content to stay put. The creatures’ holes and the attendant dearth of grass around them (prairie dogs eliminate greenery around their colonies to deprive predators of places to hide) migrated closer and closer to the million-dollar yards in town.

The Valley Floor was purchased to be a natural “preserve,” so it didn’t seem right to exterminate the furry critters. Town council authorized the building of fences and the setting of poles for hawks to use as launch pads. They also discussed importing natural predators, including badgers. The jury is still out on these natural control measures.

The solution in Nucla two decades ago was more straightforward. The marksmen brought their specialized six-foot-long rifles, with their military range finders, capable of blasting the rodents from nearly a mile away. Most shooters used soft-nosed bullets. “When you hit the dogs they splatter over an area three-foot square,” one hunter said proudly. “They just explode.”

All told, they took between 3,000 and 4,000 dogs over the two contest days. The winner had 47 kills out of 50 shots on Saturday. He and his partner won prized Kimber varmint rifles worth $1,500 apiece.

Nucla has seen its share of hard times. Many people are surprised to learn that the name doesn’t come from nuclear, as in nuclear fission, as in atom bomb. It comes instead from nucleus, as in “nucleus of a new community.”

For a while, beginning in 1893, Nucla was a utopian commune. According to a Nucla native writing about her hometown on-line, a small group of idealists from Denver moved to the high-desert plateau and “decided they wanted to set aside competition and greed,” to build a society that would instead “focus on quality and service.” They owned property in common and brought San Miguel River water up out of its canyon to irrigate their crops.

The experiment didn’t last. But according to this (unnamed) native daughter, many descendants of the utopians “still live there.”

The next big thing was uranium, which was mined for purchase by the U.S. government. Some of it was used in the Manhattan Project to make the first atomic bombs. None of the miners or their families knew what the yellow cake was to be used for. Neither did they know about its potential health effects. Nobody knew back then. Lots of Nucla families lost relatives to diseases associated with exposure to radioactive materials. The disaster at Chernobyl and the designation of the nearby Uravan mill as a Superfund Site effectively killed the mining.

So, to perk up the economy, the citizens of Nucla tried the Top Dog World Championship Prairie Dog Shoot. It survived for five go-arounds, with declining numbers toward the end. The protesters redirected their attention to Denver, lobbying for new state laws on contest shooting. And the media lost interest.

By 1994 the prairie dog numbers had dwindled significantly. Not because of the target shooting but because of bubonic plague, which decimated local populations.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife changed the rules on contest shooting in its regulation book. In Chapter 3 on Small Game, competition shooters can now take no more than five individuals of any small, fur-bearing species, be it coyotes, prairie dogs, or whatever. So, there will be no more Top Dogs.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Nucla hang tough, waiting for the next big thing.

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