Wednesday, April 3, 2024

American Pronghorn

Almost ten years ago on a trip to South Dakota, one of the animals, other than the Bison I most wanted to see, was the Pronghorn. We were nearly through Custard ‘s National Park and I was growing more disappointed with each passing mile that we still had not found them. We did find several buffalo, and burros but the Pronghorn remained elusive. As we came around one final bend I spotted them running down a steep hill and towards some open prairie land. Pronghorns! There were dozens of small antelope-like Pronghorns just off the road, some had a watchful eye on our car, and others paid us no mind. For such a small mammal they generate as much patriotic heart-felt feelings as the Bison, and Bald Eagle.

During the Pleistocene Epoch, approximately eleven other members of the same family as the Pronghorn roamed the area we now call North America. Some had impressive, curved horns or twisted horns. All but the Pronghorn have since gone extinct. The same fate nearly befell the Pronghorn as their numbers plummeted from millions to only a few thousand. In 1870 herds of Pronghorn were described by train passengers heading west as extending more than seventy miles and a million strong. These herds must have been as impressive to witness as the Bison herds.

Although first seen by Spanish explorers, the species was not actually described until Lewis and Clark made their famous trek across North America learning about the flora and fauna from coast to coast. Pronghorns are one of the most unique land mammals in North America. First, they are our fastest land animal, capable of reaching speeds of fifty-five to sixty miles per hour, which is not as fast as the famed Cheetah, but they can however run for longer periods at a sustained speed than the Cheetah can. They have one of the longest land migrations of North American mammals, traveling as much as one hundred and sixty miles from the Green River Basin in Wyoming to their destination at the Grand Teton National Park, then back again. The only North American land mammal with a longer migration is the Caribou.

Like deer, goats and many other horned animals Pronghorns are classified as ungulates. They are not built for jumping like goats and deer, but rather built for speed. They have light bone structures, hollow hair, and long cushioned pointed toes on each foot that act like shock absorbers while running at high speeds. They also have enlarged windpipes, hearts, and lungs to allow them to take in more oxygen when running. They resemble deer in that they have long legs, short tails, and a long snout. Their fur may be tan, or reddish-brown with white stripes on their necks and additional white markings on the face, stomach, and rump. These white hairs stand on end when frightened, much like the hairs on the backs of our necks when we are alarmed. Their large eyes sit prominently on top of their faces and are positioned on the sides of their heads, which allows them to see any predators in the area who may find Pronghorns a tasty meal. They are small at roughly four and a half feet long and three feet high and only weigh between ninety and one hundred and fifty pounds. Females are generally smaller than males. The most noticeable feature of the Pronghorn is the horns on top their head. Both males and females possess horns, although they differ a bit in appearance. The females horns are smaller with only a bump present. By contrast the male horns are much larger at nearly twelve inches long. At the end of the horn is a small notch or prong from where their common name comes from. They are uniquely different from other horned ungulates, in that their horns point backwards. The horns extend straight up and then curve towards the rump.

Because they closely resemble antelope in their appearance they are often referred to colloquially as American Antelope, Prong Buck, Pronghorn Antelope, or Prairie Antelope. This similarity in appearance can also be attributed to a developmental trait called parallel evolution, which means they have evolved to fill a similar ecological niche and will have similar traits as in distinct, but not closely related species.

The amount of wildlife in the western plains and adjacent areas was once so vast that it is often diificult to accept as having been true. But these massively large populations of  Bison, Elk, and other megafauna, many of which are now extinct, have earned the plains region the name of American Serengeti. What an apt name for how populated our country was with wildlife at one time. As we can no doubt agree, modern man was the downfall of many species of wildlife, plant life, and habitats throughout North America and the rest of the planet and this trend continues today. 

The Pronghorn appeared in much Native American folklore and mythology. The Pueblo considered the pronghorn a clan animal. Just about all the plains tribes hunted and utilized the Pronghorn for meat, and hides were used as leather, fur, and clothing. Bladders were used for containers and bindings, the sinew was thread, and the bones were made into tools. The exception is the Apache who believed the Pronghorn should never be hunted.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Boone and Crockett Club had determined the population of Pronghorn was likely to go extinct if action wasn't taken soon to reverse the issues facing them. In a letter to George Bird Grimmel, the then chairman of the Boone and Crockett Club, it was stated the club was concerned about the fate of the Pronghorn, which appears to be rapidly diminishing. By the early 1920’s hunting pressure, habitat degradation, and the fencing of the grasslands, had reduced the population to nearly 13,000 remaining Pronghorns in their normal range. This is a fraction of traditional populations and certainly not a sustainable population if intervention is not made to change it. Grimmel felt they were doomed to become extinct but felt everything within their power should be done to preserve them. Every attempt to restore their population failed due to fencing enclosures covering their range and migration routes. In 1927 the National Audubon Society along with the Boone and Crockett Club were able to raise the funds to create an antelope refuge comprised of 2,500 acres. This purchase was subsequently donated to the Biological Survey with the contingency that the government donate an additional 30,000 acres of adjacent public land. On June 20th, 1929, President Herbert Hoover included the required lands upon request of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior. In January of 1931, this tract of land was designated, by executive order to be a refuge. On December 31, 1936, Franklin Roosevelt expanded on this, by providing an additional 549,000 acres. This was the beginning of the true recovery of the pronghorn. The population has rebounded to between 500,000 and 1,000,000  since the 1930’s. 

Today there are efforts in place, most notably, in Arizona to protect the migration of Pronghorn. Since their migration route is often affected by sheep ranchers and the barbed wire fences they put in place to keep their sheep enclosed, the Arizona Antelope Foundation is in the process of removing the bottom rows of barbed wire to allow Pronghorn to move freely underneath the fences. Or in some cases barbless wire is put in its place.

While we will never see the traditional herds there were before 1875, we are blessed that some forward-thinking, conservation-minded individuals recognized there was a problem and sought solutions to save the wildlife of the American Serengeti.

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