Pronghorns in Peril
Yellowstone National Park, WY
Stepping softly, I approached a small rise on the treeless plain. Just over the top, I spotted several pronghorn antelopes. Behind us, a long line of cars had parked on either side of the highway through the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone. One lone pronghorn buck, resting among the sagebrush near the road, was enough to stop traffic and unleash tourists from their vehicles.
Fortunately, our guide had spotted what others hadn’t: a small herd of pronghorns that had silently retreated behind a hillock. Pronghorns are shy and nervous and will run if startled. I did not want to spook the animals so I emptied my mind of distractions and inner chatter, and walked slowly with ease and an open-heart.
Stopping at what seemed like the proper, respectful distance, the animals looked me over, but did not seem alarmed. They continue to browse the sagebrush and grass. Two of the antelopes casually ambled even closer to us and one lowered himself to the ground, relaxed and undisturbed by our nearby presence.
I saw my first wild pronghorn when I was nine on a family trip from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. Immediately captivated by their elegance and unique features, they won my heart. To me they look exotic, more like the gazelles of the African savannahs than like the other ungulates of North America.
Pronghorns seem wilder somehow, more untamed than bison and deer. More elusive and mysterious. Their big black soulful eyes can see 320 degrees of the landscape around them. Their horns, long and hooked backward, are unlike any other prairie beast. The tawny-red pattern of their thick fur is broken up with bright white bellies, rumps and bands across their necks. Males have additional dark markings on their faces, bringing more drama to their expression.
Pronghorns are America’s fastest land animal with bursts of speed up to 60 mph. They can run so much faster than any of their current predators that it is hypothesized that they developed this capacity for incredible speed during the Pleistocene, when the now extinct American cheetah lived and preyed on them. As a matter of fact, modern African cheetahs are the only animal on earth that can outrun them. Pronghorns are literally one-of-a-kind as they are the only surviving species of the family Antilocapridae. They are not true antelopes but are most closely related to old world giraffes and opakis.
Antlered animals – like deer, moose and elk – loose their antlers every winter to grow new ones. Horned animals keep their horns throughout their life. So I assumed that pronghorns had permanent horns just like bison and bighorn sheep. But pronghorns actually do both. They keep the inner bony core but lose the outer horn shell each year.
As we traveled this summer throughout Colorado and Wyoming, we occasionally spotted small bands of pronghorns, standing alert, and alone on the vast open prairie. There were fewer than I expected. In Wyoming, we camped along the Green River in an area that has recently been home to the largest herds of pronghorns in the US, but we saw almost none. Our neighbors in the campground, who stay there every year, said that during their visit the previous year, a herd of pronghorn would come to drink from the river across from us every day.
I was saddened that the pronghorns were not there this year. I would soon discover that there had been a mass die-off of pronghorns over the winter. Earlier this year, the unusually deep snow and exceptional cold had stressed the animals. They then had caught a form of pneumonia which they were unable to fight off. As many is 75% of some herds had perished. They had no vaccines or hospitals to help them. I found newspaper photos of dead pronghorns strewn among the sagebrush.
This is another dark omen of climate crisis. I grieve for these beautiful animals. As our weather becomes more extreme and erratic, and as food resources dwindle, we will see more of these mass die-offs. In Antarctica as many as 10,000 emperor penguin chicks died this year. Billions of snow crabs have disappeared in Alaskan waters in recent years.
There has also been tension in the western states between those who wish to keep land open for the natural and wild movement of animals, such as the pronghorn, and those who wish to keep industry and business growing. Pronghorns migrate and travel over great distances and are hampered by fences and development. Recently Wyoming legislature voted against restrictions on mining that would have helped reduce obstacles along the “Path of the Pronghorns” migration route for their natural seasonal movement in search of food. If you would like to read more about this go to:
I hope you enjoy these photos of the healthy pronghorns I witnessed. This small herd of bucks is protected within Yellowstone National Park.
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