BURNS, Ore. – In the high desert rangeland of southeast Oregon, there's a ground squirrel that's so common locals call them "sage rats." The little critters swarm alfalfa fields like a ready-made buffet. Farm kids have long used the Belding ground squirrels for target practice. Now, shooting squirrels has become an economic bright spot in a depressed rural economy. As correspondent Anna King reports “ratters” as their known, spend as much as $400 a day.
Bill Andersen grew up ranching in the wide-open desert county of Oregon. He's 50 now. But Andersen says he can remember coming home from a week of too many people at college. All he wanted to do was get deep in his family's ranch and play war against the ground squirrels that lived there.
Bill Andersen: “Throw the books on the table and grab my little 22 riffle, and just go head for the hills. So I'd just take my time. I'd sit and wait for them to come up. For me it was just a way to wind down from a day of studying.”
Sound: Squeak, squeak
A female Belding ground squirrel will make a shrill call if you get too near her family. They live in underground burrows and emerge from hibernation in the spring. They're prey for hawks and badgers. And they are considered serious pests in ranching country. Cattle and horses can break legs in squirrel holes. And the sage rats can take half of a farmer's alfalfa or wheat field.
Hunting these guys is no longer a kid's game with a 22. Now sage ratters go on guided safaris costing 75 to more than 400 dollars a day.
KZZR Radio Commercial: “Great Basin Sporting Goods rat hunting outfitters has daily guided rat hunts.”
The local unemployment rate in Harney County is about 19 percent. People need jobs and the squirrels provide. Hunters even fly in from the East Coast. Men and women that regularly go big game hunting in Africa are now hunting tiny squirrels. Some tours even have full catering.
At Crystal Crane Hot Springs there's a bone-easing hot lake to dip in. This night there are hordes of sage rat hunters. They're camping out in a massive safari tent and travel trailers. Bridget Rocheford runs the place. She says many of these men and women ratters are educated and well-heeled.
Bridget Rocheford: “It's a varied demographic. And what's definitely surprising about it is the number of people from just all walks of life that come and do it. It really isn't just a redneck, hayseed, yahoo kind of endeavor.”
Farmers are choosy about who they'll let hunt. They don't want their expensive irrigation lines shot up. Not far from Crystal Crane some ratters are shooting squirrels in an alfalfa field.
Jeeps and SUV's are loaded to the gunnels with rifles, ammo, spotting scopes pistols and provisions. The men are all in their 60s and they're in head-to-toe camo. Will Roberts is a retired school principal. He takes his time to line up a good shot from his camp chair.
Will Roberts: “This is a 17 not a 22. It shoots a little further.”
Anna King: “Is that …”
Anna King: “Ohhhh… Is that bigger caliber?”
Will Roberts: “It's actually a smaller caliber…
Roberts is with his work buddies from around Portland, Oregon. They call this yearly trip “Rat Fest.” They even sport ball caps with embroidered sage rats on the front. Bob Clisby sets all this up each year. He says his eyes aren't as good as they used to be.
Bob Clisby: “And I am not as steady as I used to be. But just sitting there knowing that's going to be one less rat, taking care of this rancher's field. It's just a good feeling.”
Clisby also likes the challenge of marksmanship.
Bob Clisby: “My best sage rat shot was over 450 yards at a two inch by six inch target ... that rat never knew what hit him. All he was, was red mist.”
All of this is alarming to Jill Mateo. She's spent nearly 20 years studying the behavior and evolutionary biology of Belding squirrels in California. She says many ranchers think they breed like crazy, but really the females can only have one litter of babies a year. And Mateo has watched four complete populations go extinct just in the time of her study. She says the wee animals each have personalities and extended families.
Jill Mateo: “They should not be exterminated, they should not be gotten rid of. They should not be allowed to be endangered. And unfortunately in other areas that's what's happening.”
But in the vast landscape of southeast Oregon, shooting squirrels is a pastime the same as some urban families might go to a baseball game or a bowling alley. Bill Andersen, who's been hunting squirrels all his life, says it's an excuse to quiet a busy life … and be alone.
Bill Andersen: “Jeez, the experience; I can't even describe: Being on a piece of ground by yourself. And that's becoming very limited in the world.”
Sage rat hunting slows a bit in summer when the squirrels can hide in tall alfalfa. But the season usually ends around late September when the Belding ground squirrels go underground to take refuge from the cold.
Copyright 2010 Northwest Public Radio