Sunday, July 8, 2007

Hello Antelope Brothers

My daughter and I recently returned from a driving trip which included crossing parts of Wyoming, South Dakota, and western Nebraska. We've made the journey before, but always later in the summer, late July or August, when the sun is baking hot and the grasses have turned golden-brown-- as they are most of the year, in this region. We generally, on these drives, saw antelope (=pronghorns) scattered over the open, sparsely populated hillsides and valleys, alone, among several of their own kin, or browsing calmly amidst a group of cattle. There were many, but their coloration, with patchy areas of white and orangey-brown, made them difficult to pick out of the landscape. Standing, they mingled with the waves of windblown grasses; lying down, they became white boulders half-hidden by the vegetation. The way you saw antelope was this, in my experience: first, one, close to the roadside or outlined against the sky. Then, after your mind focused on the idea of antelope, two or three more would suddenly take shape near the first. A few moments later-- if you kept looking-- in a startling revelation, twenty or two hundred materializing out of the grasses, dotted all across the visible landscape.

This drive was different, because in mid-June the spring grasses were still green. The protective coloration of the antelope was useless in this season, and we could see them everywhere. Their ubiquity, in contrast to their usual elusiveness, was startling.

Pronghorns are not true “antelope”; they are not related to the antelope of Africa and Eurasia. They are instead unique wonders in their own right. The second-fastest land animal in the world (after the cheetah), reaching running speeds of 60 mph, they have existed on the North American plains in more-or-less similar form for at least the last million years, and are the only living member of an ancient family, Antilocapridae (“Antelope goats”), that during the Pliocene and Pleistocene included species with multiple and/or bizarrely-shaped horns. At a mere 30 or 40 mph, antelope can run for long distances. A young pronghorn can outrun a human when it is four days old. Like some desert animals, pronghorn antelope can often live without drinking free water, provided the plant foods they browse on are sufficiently juicy. They can also withstand a very high range of temperatures , from -50 to 130 degrees. The pronghorn’s ability to consume many noxious weeds deemed inedible by livestock is an additional boon both to its own survival and to human range management.

Pronghorn antelope may be tough and flexible in some ways, but nonetheless historically they have posed a conservation challenge. Their story has much in common with that of the bison, their formerly abundant comrade of the great plains. It is estimated that before the arrival of Europeans, antelope numbered close to 35 million (there were perhaps 30-70 million bison), ranging throughout the West from Canada south to Mexico. A 1920 count, however, indicated only about 20 to 30 thousand remaining, the population decimated by hunting and livestock-introduced disease. By 1962, after some years of habitat protection and hunting restrictions, Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall was able to proclaim conservation success, asserting in a press release with great excitement that: “Today reliable estimates place the pronghorn antelope population at a half million!” (Unfortunately for future generations, he also opined, “Our land use patterns will soon be firmly fixed. What we save now—in the 1960s—will be all that can be saved.”)

500,000 is of course much better than 25,000, but, even now (estimates still range around one-half to just over one million), less than a thirtieth of the original antelope population remains. We have changed the world of the pronghorn beyond recognition. Pronghorn, for instance, despite their amazing speed, are poor jumpers, and therefore strongly affected by fencing. Since they are intensely territorial animals who also undergo seasonal migrations, range fencing can seriously interfere with pronghorns’ natural movements. (Having spent quite a bit of time over the past year reading stream restoration plans from around the West, I wonder whether the trend towards fencing off riparian areas to protect streambanks from cattle trampling often serves to cut off antelope from their water source.)

Pronghorn can, however, duck under fences, and so an important conservation measure is to simply remove the bottom wire or rung of fences erected within their range. This will allow the pronghorn passage while still restricting the movement of livestock.

While the general pronghorn population has recovered, to a point, in the United States, an endangered subspecies, the Sonoran Pronghorn, remains, with a population of only about 100-250 animals in Arizona (1998 recovery plan). An additional several hundred individuals of this subspecies live in Mexico.

Why spend my first blog post talking about pronghorn? I moved to Montana, from Iowa, in 1999. That autumn, I spent every two- or three-day break I had, between classes and a waitressing job, exploring the state (I only wish I still had the freedom to do this). I’d read about Egg Mountain, up near Choteau, where local paleontologist Jack Horner had discovered a large number of Maiosaurus nests filled with fossilized eggs in the 1970s. I knew I probably couldn’t access the actual site, but for some reason I wanted to see what the area was like. So I drove up to Choteau, and then out, on what I remember as gravel and/or dirt roads, to Egg Mountain. In a way, there was nothing to see. The grasses were yellow there, as everywhere, the hills having a certain starkness against the blue sky. And there was nobody much around, except for me… and hundreds of antelope. You know how it is when you are alone, in the middle of nowhere. Somehow you disappear, and it becomes hard to remember what or who it is that is perceiving the landscape. I got lost on those dirt roads, surrounded by antelope and yellow grass and blue sky, and I remember that I was singing “Home on the Range” in the kind of pure, perfect voice you use when nobody is listening.

Oh, give me a home… where the buffalo roam… and the deer and the antelope play…

As I said, I lost track, a little, of what I was, and I found myself talking to the antelope, out loud. “Hello, Antelope Brothers,” I said to them, and I meant it. They didn’t say anything. But I really did feel, during that hour, that I was among family. Give me a home, indeed.

I am still in Montana, and I suspect I shall stay.

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