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The pronghorn: back from the edge of oblivion.

We've all heard of the tales of the enormous herds of bison that once roamed the American west. It's almost unimaginable to think of how the sun could have been totally obliterated from view as the result of the dust from a buffalo stampede. It boggles the mind how so many animals could have been supported by the meager grass of the prairies and how the species could have been almost wiped out of existence in only a few short years. But the bison wasn't the 0nly animal that suffered during this ear. The pronghorn also felt the pressure associated with man moving westward and the unfortunate devastation that followed.

Like the American bison, no one really knows how many pronghorn once roamed the prairies of North America, although there are estimates on record indicating that possibly over 100 million existed. The pronghorn was so plentiful during that time that people viewed them as an endless, inexhaustible commodity to be used and often times, abused.

The pronghorn numbers far exceeded that of the bison, but both species shared a common fate. Both faced almost total depletion and the cause is often blamed on market hunting. In reality, the demise of both the bison and the pronghorn was the result of a series of tragic incidents all reaching a climax in the early 1920s.

Without a doubt, market hunting played a significant role in the decline of both the bison and the pronghorn. As the buffalo numbers began to dwindle, the sometimes unscrupulous market hunters turned their guns on the pronghorn. Wagon loads of carcasses began to flood the city market places. As a consequence market prices fell to as low as 25 cents for a pile of three or four animals. But even though market hunting had a significant role in this unfortunate era, there were other factors at play as well. In both cases the species' sources of food were dwindling. The prairie grasses were disappearing and a series of bad winters began to take its toll. And if that wasn't enough, nature stepped in, as is often the case when wildlife species begin to exceed the carrying capacity of an area. A disease called "bloody murrain" began to quickly spread throughout the pronghorn herds. Soon tens of thousands were facing a slow, agonizing death.

By the early 1900s it was obvious that steps would have to be taken to save the pronghorn from total disaster. As a result, by 1914 the hunting of the pronghorn had been banned nationwide. Nevertheless, this action did not bring a speedy recovery to the population. The once vast herds that had darkened the horizon had all but disappeared by the 1920s, leaving only an estimated 33,500 clinging to survival.

Shocked at the idea that the pronghorn could be doomed forever, a number of very carefully laid government protection plans were put into place as stopgap measures. These plans, coupled with a few bouts of favorable winter weather, were largely responsible for turning the tides and ultimately saving the pronghorn from total extinction. The road back wasn't an easy one for the species, but by the 1970s the herds had grown tenfold. With an estimated population of over 390,000 head, there was reason for new hope for the pronghorn. These numbers continued to grow and today it is believed that over 3/4 of a million pronghorn roam freely on the prairies of North America. Wyoming has the highest population, but other western states like Montana, South Dakota, Colorado and New Mexico have very large, stable herds as well. In addition, most of the other western states and even Canada have noteworthy herds, but to a lesser degree than those previously mentioned.

For all the positive attributes that the pronghorn has, this animal doesn't come without baggage and sometimes, considerable conflict. In many cases farmers and ranchers suffer clearly at the hands of, or better put--at the mouths of--the pronghorn. In many cases alfalfa makes up the pronghorn's favorite food source for the same reason that it is preferred for livestock feed--its high nutritional value. Grain and other cash crops are also on the pronghorn's list of desirable cuisine and this means that farmers are often severely affected financially when pronghorn numbers rise to high levels.

Fences are great deterrents to pronghorn movements, even if the fences are only a few feet high. Unlike the members of the deer family, the pronghorn will seldom jump over a fence or other obstruction. A herd will travel for miles along a fencerow in order to find a place to slip under or go around, rather than jump over. Even though the species are capable of jumping to great heights without significant effort or energy--they simply prefer not to. The pronghorn's leg bones are actually more resistant to breakage than those of the domestic cow. Laboratory tests have shown that a whopping 45,300 lbs./sq. in. is needed to crush the leg of a pronghorn. A cow on the other hand will often tip the scales at eight to 10 times more than a pronghorn, but when it comes to leg breakage the pronghorn is much more resilient to injury.

I have only observed a single incident of a pronghorn jumping a fence. Ironically, this was when I was watching a herd with my two young daughters. I had just finished saying, "Watch This ... they will never jump over a Fence ..." Just then the only case of vertical jumping I have ever observed happened--over one went. The animal cleared the fence with seemingly no effort whatsoever. While this may have hurt the ol' man's reputation as a wildlife expert in the eyes of the daughters, certainly this was a very rare situation indeed.

This reluctance to jump over a fence can lead to significant problems for the pronghorn. Even though the species does not migrate in the true sense of the word (like caribou) they do sometimes move seasonally. When heavy snows descend on an area, the pronghorn is sometimes forced to move to sheltered areas in order to locate food. Fences can significantly interrupt these necessary movements, resulting in sentencing an entire herd to a chilling, devastating doom. Such instances have been documented on several tragic occasions in the state of Wyoming, where vast numbers died from starvation and exposure. In addition, fences can pose a snaring-like problem for the pronghorn. If a herd is pressured with impending danger they may be forced to jump--or run through--a fence. This can result in the animal becoming entangled in the strands of wire, as shown in the photo. Attempting to penetrate the barrier, a pronghorn's leg can sometimes become intertwined in the strands of wire. The result is sometimes a painful, agonizing death. While fences work wonders to keep these animals out of trouble areas (like rancher's fields) a fence can, on occasion, be the pronghorn's worst enemy.

Many people call the pronghorn an "antelope." In actuality, the pronghorn is not an antelope species at all. It is uniquely American. Scientists and biologists can find no ancestral relationship between the American pronghorn and any antelope species throughout the world. In fact, the pronghorn has no close living relatives anywhere today, and what distant ancestors they may have had were most likely confined to the North American continent.

The pronghorn has many unique characteristics that set it apart from most other species of wildlife. Both male and female possess horns, as opposed to antlers. The male (or buck) generally has much longer and heavier horns than the female of the species. It is important to note that these are actually horns in the true sense of the word. The pronghorn is actually the only living horned animal that sheds its horns annually. On the other hand, the somewhat similar appearing antelope species of Africa and Asia retain their horns for life. The horn of the pronghorn is made up of fused hair, similar to that of a rhinoceros. The horn is, of course, hard and rigid, and if you look closely individual hairs can sometimes be seen.

America's pronghorn holds the unique distinction of being the fastest animal in North America and second only in speed to the cheetah in the world. It has been said that the pronghorn is capable of speeds up to 70 mph. Many times it seems like the pronghorn simply likes to run, and once underfoot, a herd will go for miles before settling back to graze and rest.

Unlike the members of the deer family, the pronghorn have no tear ducts or dew claws. First year pronghorn does often give birth to a single fawn, while two-year-olds and older frequently give birth to twins and occasionally triplets. The reproductive cycle of the pronghorn is extremely unique and a bit puzzling. At the beginning of the pregnancy the doe sometimes has three to eight embryos developing inside the womb. Shortly afterwards, all but one or two are aborted. This may be a throwback trait to early times when their distant ancestors may have actually given birth to litters. Or is it nature's way of ensuring that healthy offspring are born? No one really knows for sure.

If you've ever been around the pronghorn you will undoubtedly discover in very short order that they are extremely hard to approach. Impending danger can be communicated within the herd by three distinct alarm methods: audio, visual and scent. Of these, possibly the most important to the species survival is their remarkable eyesight. The vision of the pronghorn is said to be the equivalent of eight powerful binoculars and a peripheral view in excess of 320 degrees. The species audio alert comes in the form of an unnatural sounding "snort." Unless you are close to the herd, this alarm may fall out of your range of hearing, but to the pronghorn it can be heard up to 400 feet away. The snort is often followed by raised hair along the rump and mane, which in turn releases an odor from a number of scent glands. All of these warning signals work together to provide a sophisticated alarm mechanism to alert the members of the herd of any potential danger.

The pronghorn lives in some of the harshest American climates, Winter temperatures can plunge to 50 or 60 below zero and be complicated with bone-chilling winds in excess of 50 mph. But the torture doesn't end at the close of the winter season. In the summer, temperatures on the prairie and desert lands can sometimes exceed 120 degrees in the shade and certainly shade in pronghorn country is a scarce commodity indeed.

While all animals possess systems and methods of dealing with extremes in temperature and weather, the pronghorn is particularly unique in this area. The hair of the pronghorn is hollow, which works as insulation to retain the natural body heat during cold periods. Being hollow, the hair will actually float on a water surface. The coat can also be raised and lowered at will in order to best fit the current temperature and conditions. In the winter, the hair may be raised slightly in order to trap the body's warmth and in summer, it may be fully elevated in order to dissipate the heat through a cooling breeze.

This truly remarkable creature could have easily been lost for eternity if it hadn't been for proper management and restraint. What a tragic thing it would have been to lose the pronghorn forever. This is a classic example of how man can sometimes correct the mistakes of his past. While there are never any guarantees in wildlife and wildlife management, it appears that the pronghorn will be with us for coming generations to enjoy.
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Author:Tabor, Tomas C.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 2004
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