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I put a few hundred miles on the soles of my boots in the late 70s up on the high plains between the Bighorns in Wyoming and the Black Hills of South Dakota at a place called the Powder River Basin. One of those places on the map where they just don't have much to say. No towns, no mountains, and the Powder River is hardly worth mentioning. Lots of fairly flat ground broken by widely spaced gullies. I remember towns that were actually just cross roads with no stores and maybe two houses called things like Recluse or Bitter Creek.

Photo by Fisherga   Colorado sand dunes, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Bristlecone Pine, Sage

I was young, everything was new and unusual, and one of the more unusual things were the pronghorn that inhabited the seemingly empty land. Herds would sometimes reach a hundred or more individuals, they were always in the distance and they could run like the dickens. We learned to give them some room when we came up on them driving along the road. They could run 50 mph but they couldn't jump a four foot barbed wire fence and if pushed they'd run right into it, or scratch themselves crawling  under.

Soon enough I myself migrated to the steeper terrain and  bigger paychecks of western Wyoming, and other states, but often over the years I'd still sometimes catch a glimpse of the odd little speedgoat, usually in the far distance looking like a dot with two little horns.

Very recently, just yesterday in the time span of the natural world, our continent teamed with large mammals. Protected from humans by the water splitting us from Asia, our wildlife grew to large sizes and had representative species of most animals that existed in Eurasia, and a few that grew only here.

Of all those species not many survived the coming of humans as well as other species and unknown diseases that flowed across the Bering land bridge. Gone are the short faced bear  the wooly mammoths and mastodons, no huge ground sloths or varieties of wild horses or giant moose and elk, no saber toothed cats or dire wolves or larger than African cheetahs and lions.

Now our great plains, once savannas, are vast farmlands. In those places too dry or unproductive to grow domestic crops one of those prehistoric animals still exists in the wild, unfenced and free roaming. Built for a different time and different conditions, the pronghorn is the last of the large mammals of the plains, and they have adapted to the age of the Anthropocene.


Antelope Fish and Wildlife Service

Bison are fenced or otherwise constrained, the camel is long gone, only one species of pronghorn survives. When people see the pronghorn and our plains they think that this is how America always was except maybe with bison. They're wrong. Our plains used to be dotted with bushes and trees. There were many varieties of animals cropping the grasses and trimming the bush, and eating them a multitude of carnivores. Instead of being food limited our wildlife was carnivore limited. Species became faster at running and stronger at defending themselves, the meat eaters in turn learned to run faster and bite harder, and all species were forced to become smarter.

Having eyes bigger than an elephant the pronghorn's eyes are made to swivel upwards too for the large birds that used to prey on it. Able to see a persons head edging up over the brow of a hill at a mile distant the pronghorn also has the intelligence to ignore non threatening carnivores from close distances.

It's not known exactly how fast a pronghorn can run, they can cruise at 35 or 40 seemingly for ever and can break to speeds easily exceeding 60 on uneven terrain. It's thought that the larger than African cheetah that lived in the New World was it's main predator. The pronghorn stores little fat, so not to slow itself down, a bad winter can cause massive die off. No existing predator stands a chance of catching a speed goat as they are affectionately called. Coyotes and eagles prey on the very young, but after a very few days they can easily outrun anything with feet.

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Like many species of animals in North America the pronghorn came close to extinction. Unlike many other species the pronghorn had no booster club. Mostly the pronghorn was saved through the efforts of ranchers, farmers, or state divisions of wildlife. People made a conscious effort not to shoot them. Unmolested pronghorn populations grew to the point where they could be reintroduced to their former range.

Pronghorn often taste gamey, they eat a lot of sage, that's not to say they taste bad, just strong. The animal is a picky eater, they eat the plants that are highest in nutrition and have developed a digestive system that is able to process the strong poisons that those very nutritious plants use to protect themselves.

Called a long legged courser, the pronghorn is fast but also runs on uneven terrain and runs over small obstacles. It is long necked and runs head high to judge the terrain for every footfall, when chased to stumble is to die. It's lungs and trachea and heart, all oversized to get tons of air into it's lungs quickly and push that blood to the legs to run.

You can see pronghorn's easy enough if you just keep your eyes open while driving across the plains. Look for places without farms but with sage and grass, then keep your eyes on the distance. We've fallen out of the habit of scanning the distance constantly with our eyes, the world of the modern human occurs at grocery cart distance. I often point out pronghorns to people simply because I was looking.

Hunting pronghorns, or antelope as they are misnamed, one has to be comfortable shooting at a couple hundred yards. It's true that they can be bow hunted, it's even more true that kids who grow up out on the plains often shoot them at 400 yards. It's due to these distances that the expression "plains rifle" came to be, meaning a flat shooting rifle.

Looking at the pronghorn I'm left to imagine our great plains as great savannahs, with large migrating herds of many different ungulates preyed on by a wide assortment of predators. Now we struggle to simply keep the few that are left.


usfws

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Thank You for rescue: I have to admit I didn't write this, it wrote itself.

Originally posted to Hunting and Fishing Kos on Sun Dec 22, 2013 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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