It wasn’t really Spring Break, but this last weekend was our annual Sage Rat Hunting Trip to the dry half of Oregon. Sage rats, for those of you who may be new here, are actually ground squirrels, the exact species varying depending on location. Belding’s Ground Squirrel is grey with a tan underside, while the Richardson’s Ground Squirrel has a brown back with a buff belly. I have seen both varieties in eastern Oregon, but the Richardson’s seems more common as one travels south, and the Belding’s more common in the central part of the region.
Sage rats are incredibly destructive creatures. They eat seeds and grasses, and in large populations make it extremely difficult for a rancher to raise feed for other animals. Their extensive burrows drain scarce water away from alfalfa roots and stunt growth. According to a cousin, it can drop crop yield by 50% or more in a heavily infested field. As hard as it is to make a living as a rancher, the sage rats make it all the more difficult. It’s especially true in a region where water is scarce and wasting it isn’t just bad economics, it’s bad ecology.
As recently as a couple of decades ago the populations were kept in check by a combination of predation and poison, but in the mid-90s legislative pressure curtailed to use of poisons to protect the raptors that feed on the squirrels. The sage rat turned from a minor annoyance to a full-blown infestation, and it’s almost impossible to find a field in eastern Oregon that is free from the prolific pests.
The populations exploded almost immediately, and by the turn of the century shooting the pests had become something of a sport. Today there are sage rat shooting competitions and outfitters who put together tour packages for hunters who like shooting a lot during the day.
The preferred weapon is a rimfire rifle. The .22 LR has long been the dominant caliber, but today the .17 HMR is on the verge of taking over that title. It’s not unusual to shoot 500 rounds in a couple of days (sometimes two or three times that in a good field), and the cost advantage of the rimfire – as well as its relative safety due to shorter ranges – keeps centerfire rifles at home in the safe.
We and a group of cousins go over to one of our other cousin’s ranches in an effort to help him keep ahead of the alfalfa-killing pests. Our efforts seem to be paying off, as over the past several years his fields are consistently less populated than those of his neighbors. Pest control is not a glamorous part of hunting — in fact, it’s a stretch to even refer to is as hunting — but when you grow up on a farm you learn that it is a necessary thing.
-=[ Grant ]=-