HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Donald Trump Jr. will be targeting more than just Montana's Republican voters on Friday and Saturday when he helps Greg Gianforte campaign for an open U.S. House seat.
A prairie dog hunt is also on the agenda for the four-city tour for President Donald Trump's son and Gianforte, a technology entrepreneur up against Democrat Rob Quist in the May 25 election for the seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
"As good Montanans, we want to show good hospitality to people," Gianforte said. "What can be more fun than to spend an afternoon shooting the little rodents?"
Trump is lending Gianforte some star power to fuel his campaign after Republican congressional candidates had close calls in special elections in Kansas and Georgia. The president's son, an avid hunter and angler who last visited Montana in November, is looking to shore up support from the hunting-friendly state after his father won Montana by 20 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Prairie dog hunting is a way for landowners to control the population of the rodents, classified as "agricultural pests" because of the damage they can do to crops. They are also a nongame species, meaning there are no hunting limits or hunting seasons. Killing them is a popular pastime among some hunters who looking to keep their shooting skills sharp during the offseason when they can't hunt wild animals like deer and elk.
However, prairie dogs are also listed as a species of concern by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks because their numbers have declined and because of threats like disease.
Their numbers haven't dropped to the point that protective measures must be taken so that they're managed like other wildlife, though, agency spokesman Greg Lemon said.
"They are a species of concern but also a species not in need of management," he said.
The Humane Society of the United States condemned Trump's hunting plans, saying prairie dogs are an important species for the Great Plains.
More than 100 other animals depend on the prairie dog as food or move into the burrows they dig, said Lindsey Sterling Krank, the organization's director for its Prairie Dog Coalition.
Now is the time year when prairie dogs are still nursing their new offspring, meaning hunters who shoot lactating females are condemning the pups to starvation, Sterling Krank said.
"I would love to take Donald Trump Jr. out with a spotting scope and shoot the prairie dog with our cameras," Sterling Krank said. "Shooting a prairie dog colony is not a good conservation message."
Gianforte, whose campaign has focused on gun rights, dismissed the organization's concerns.
"Clearly they've never shot a prairie dog," he said. "They don't know how much fun it is."
The Montana race is drawing increasing interest after the Georgia and Kansas elections, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has pledged to come to Montana next month to campaign for Quist, a popular musician who fronted the Mission Mountain Wood Band.
Gianforte, who is trying to rebound from last November's election loss to Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, has already received a boost from outside spending from national Republican groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund.
Quist campaign spokeswoman Tina Olechowski declined to comment.