Stephen Hartgen 01“You low-down, yellow-bellied marmot,” snarls one Western gunslinger to another across a smoky bar. “Blam, Blam.” One’s on the way to Boot Hill. It’s a common scene in many a western flick, but it does injustice to the furry critter in the slur.

So let us praise, for a moment, the low-down yellow-bellied marmot. Is there any more iconic creature of the western bluffs and rough outcroppings? There must be hundreds of thousands of them across southern and eastern Idaho, even with the highways they have to regularly cross or the plinking of .22 shooters for which they’re ever watchful. They’re out early on sunny mornings, nibbling away on alfalfa fields and home lawns, burrowing away under sheds and farm rock piles.

We call them rock chucks, in honor of their preferred habitats, but they can be found just about anywhere in the west, at many elevations, near water and always near something green to eat, like money.  More on that later.

They’re prolific in the extreme. The little ones emerge not long after their parents in late winter, a sure sign that spring is almost here after months of estivation from late summer through year’s end.

They have an unwise habit of perching straight up on a prominent rock, presumably to get a good look around, but in doing so they’re easy prey for hawks, eagles, foxes and coyotes.

A shrill whistle often gives them away, by which they’re also known as “whistle pigs” by old timers who remember hunting them in the back 40s of decades past. Not many will admit it, but they were also sometimes a stew pot fare in the Depression, the ‘possums, rabbits, squirrels and armadillos of the west in those hard times.

Sure, they mess up farm ground. No irrigator can long tolerate their diggings in a ditch bank, and in larger colonies, they can carve out impressive dips in fields and crop lands. Poisoned, shot, run over, preyed upon, trapped, they’re still impossible to eliminate.    

Maybe that’s why their name has been informally assigned to politicians, who like their furry counterparts, like to gather in colonies, eat up whatever they can find and leave only their tracks and, well, leavings. Calling someone a “low-down yellow-bellied marmot” in a political setting isn’t exactly a compliment.

But perhaps it’s time for a reassessment. Not sayin’ we should rename some Idaho county “Rock Chuck County,” but how about an occasional bluff, corner or roadway? Surely, if there’s a Lizard Butte, there should be a “Rock Chuck Gulch” somewhere in Idaho.

Or how about one of those fast-sprouting new schools which are cropping up all over Idaho suburbia? When this was suggested to former Twin Falls school superintendent Wiley Dobbs, he wondered if anyone would want to attend a school named “Rock Chuck Elementary.” Half in jest, he tried the name out on other school officials. They were not impressed.

But why not?  It would certainly raise eyebrows on job and college applications. (“You went to Rock Chuck? Humm…Let’s hear that school whistle.”) The school colors would necessarily be brown above with yellow front jerseys and white-nosed helmet logos and a label on the school rock saying “Welcome to the home of the Whistlers.”

There’s some literal accuracy on the marmot’s description. Yep, they’re “low down,” in that they live low to the ground and dig burrows. And they are indeed “yellow-bellied,” with a tannish-yellow underbelly of dingy hair.

One can easily see how these traits would be transferred to the political arena. And that, sadly, has given the low-down yellow-bellied critter little chance of being considered in a positive light.

So maybe being linked by name to generalized politics is as good as a whistler can expect.  Let’s focus then, whistling tongue-in-cheek, on finally giving this much-maligned name to various Idaho political parties and lobbies. You can think of these as take-off lyrics in the tradition of the country tune about an old flame’s “lying, cheating, cold dead-beating, two-timing, double-dealing, mean-mistreating, loving heart.” So humm along and with apologies to singer Patty Loveless (Blame It On Your Heart, 1993), here we go:

Could be the Democrat Low Down Yellow-Bellied Marmots; or the Republican Low Down Yellow-Bellied Marmots; or the Libertarian, Marijuana Puffing, Low Down Yellow-Bellied Marmots. which some weedsters support across the political isle;

Or the Conservation Voters of Idaho, Don’t-Even Leave-Your-Toilet-Paper-Behind, Low-Down Yellow Bellied Marmots; or the Idaho Press Corps, Leave-No-Democrat Unpraised and No Republican Unbesmerched, Low Down Yellow Bellied Marmots; or the Planned Parenthood, Let-No-Rock-Chuck-Pup-Ever-Be-Born, Low-Down Yellow Bellied Marmots; and the Boise Urban Renewal, Let-No-Neighborhood-Go-Unbulldozed Low Down Yellow Bellied Marmots; 

Or the Drain-The-Boise-Swamp, Low Down Yellow Bellied Marmots; or the Eastern Idaho Medical Debt Gouging, Low Down Yellow-Bellied Marmots; or finally the Idaho Fake News Oligarch Fake Freedom Foundation, Low Down Yellow-Bellied Marmots.

Take your pick. Let’s hear that country tune and a shrill whistle for that alfafa-eatin’, new-lawn rippin,’ crop-destroyin, profit-takin,’ coyote batin,’ politics-rantin,’ Low Down Yellow Bellied Marmot.    

Stephen Hartgen is a retired five-term member of the Idaho House of Representatives, R-Twin Falls, where he served on the Revenue & Taxation Committee. From 1982-2005, he was editor and publisher of the Times-News.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..