Photo: Relocating via helicopter in Texas, these pronghorn get a new perspective on life
I am fascinated by pronghorn antelopes. I don’t remember the first time I saw one, but the first time I had an opportunity to look at them closely and purposefully was last year while elk hunting in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. It turns out that some of the best pronghorn trophies are from precisely that country. The weird little creatures are prolific there, as they are in various places through the central part of the continent.
Pronghorns are the only surviving member of the family antilocapridae – “antelope goats” – although the fossil record shows that during the Pleistocene period there were a dozen or so other species of antilocapridae indigenous to North America. Indeed during the Pleistocene, there was an abundance and diversity of wildlife in North America that rivaled or exceeded the Mara ecosystem of the east African plains – the Serengeti and environs. In addition to various types of ungulates and grazers, pronghorns, deer, elk, elephants, camels, horses, zebra, wooly rhinoceros and the like, North America was home to a vast array of predators too. Dan Flores in his natural history, American Serengeti, lists bears, saber-toothed cats, wolves, coyotes, jaguars, cougars, steppe lions, scimitar cats, cheetahs, and hyenas as once roaming the North American landscape.
Most of this staggering biodiversity disappeared about 10,000 years ago, during the Quaternary extinction event. Paleontologists debate the cause(s) of this mass extinction, but it may well have had to do, at least partly, with overhunting by humans, who were becoming prolific throughout the world at that time.
Pronghorns do not seem to have been among the American Indians’ favorite quarry. Bones with the marks of butchering turn up at prehistoric sites, but are much less common than the bones of mammoth, bison, or even rabbits. Market hunters in the 19th century didn’t care much for them either… that is until they had shot-out all the buffalo. Beginning in the 1870’s and through the end of the century, market hunters began to turn their rifle sights on pronghorn, and they were slaughtered by the tens of thousands.
The late nineteenth century also saw the development and widespread use of barbed wire on ranches throughout the pronghorns’ range. This new technology was often lethal for pronghorns because they don’t jump. They can jump, they just don’t seem to realize it, a curious aspect of their behavior that is doubtless the consequence of their having evolved on grasslands where there’s not much to jump over. When barbed wire was deployed on the range, it often proved an insurmountable barrier. Entire herds were killed by blizzards, huddled against wire fences that stood athwart their southerly migration routes, or they starved to death in overgrazed pastures with plenty of forage just on the other side of a couple strands of wire.
Although it is impossible to know for certain, there were likely between 30 and 40 million pronghorns living in North America at the beginning of the 19th century. About 20 percent of the total lived in Texas, mostly in the desert scrub of the Trans-Pecos and the shortgrass prairie of the Llano Estacado. Yet a survey in 1924, after decades of indiscriminate hunting and fence building, found only 2,407 Texas pronghorns remaining. Hunting was banned in 1903, and efforts to restore populations began in earnest in the middle of the 20th century.
Early this year I had the opportunity to join a group of biologists and wildlife professionals in the high plains of the Texas panhandle, where pronghorns were reintroduced and have done fairly well. We captured over 100 of them, using net guns fired from helicopters, took samples of hair and blood and feces, attached radio telemetry collars, loaded the animals into trailers, and trucked them about 500 miles to the Trans-Pecos, where they were released to supplement smaller local herds, and to enrich and diversify the Trans-Pecos gene pool.
This was the most recent of several similar expeditions over the last decade or so, underwritten by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Borderlands Research Institute, and a myriad of local hunting and conservation groups. The aim is to undo the last century’s overharvest and negligent extirpation of these creatures that belong to the prairie. The effort is working, albeit slowly, and abetted by the increased use of modified fencing that pronghorns can shimmy underneath. There are about 12,000 pronghorns in Texas today – a long way from the teeming millions that were present two centuries ago, but also a lot better than the 2,407 counted in 1924.
There are lessons here for managers and utilizers of many species, not least the managers and utilizers of fisheries – lessons, that is to say, for those with ears to hear, the conservation-minded. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA), first passed in 1976, many marine fisheries have recovered from years of negligent overharvest akin to what bedeviled the pronghorn. Other fisheries, by dint of a tapestry of ecological realities or because they occur in waters beyond the reach of MSA management, remain depleted or are trending perilously downward. Scientists estimate that 97% of the bluefin tuna that once swam in the ocean are now gone.
Yet the MSA story is by and large a success story. Forty-five fish stocks have been rebuilt since 2000. And what’s good for fish is good for fishermen and coastal communities. Commercial fishing revenue is trending upward, as are sales impacts from recreational fishing, tackle, boats, marine equipment and the like.
The point is that while humans certainly cause ecological problems, as the only rational actors on the scene, humans are also the only possible conceivers of solutions to ecological problems, and sometimes – sometimes – a sustainable human-wildlife symbiosis can be achieved. Some day I hope to have a chance to hunt a Texas pronghorn. In order for that to happen, there have to be enough of them on the land to make and keep hunting sustainable. For the conscientious recreational sportsman, hunters and fishermen alike, this equation means that there is work to do. That work comes in many guises, but a big part of it is cultivating in ourselves virtues that make the tragedy of the commons avoidable. This means principally the cultivation of a “resource first” mindset. Understanding that while the harvest of fish and wildlife is good and it’s a way of life that we cherish, the presence of fish and wildlife is the precondition for the sporting traditions we love. You cannot hunt and fish for what is no longer there.
For what its worth, I am convinced that this is the solution to the broader problem of the pressure that growing human populations are putting on wildlife everywhere. If human populations were unflappably virtuous, then I suspect the ecosphere could support a lot of us and a lot of wildlife too. As it is, too often we evince too ready a willingness to over-exploit natural resources for the sake of the almighty dollar, right up until those resources are gone. Witness market hunters turning to pronghorns after (nearly) finishing off the bison. This is, in essence, the tragedy of the commons.
When it comes to recreational anglers, the virtue of catch-and-release is hard to gainsay, from a conservation point of view. God knows I’m not above throwing fish in the cooler, and God knows I love to eat fish that I catch. But it should go without saying that we ought to harvest only what we will eat, and eat what we harvest. It certainly ought to go without saying that we should obey applicable laws as to seasons and limits and so forth. We ought to prefer to harvest abundant species, make an effort to release fish alive, which might entail learning to use descenders for reef fish or other inconveniences. We ought also to educate ourselves about food webs and the importance of forage fish for target species and, in consequence, the importance of legal protections for forage fish.
But perhaps more than anything else, it is incumbent upon conscientious hunters and anglers to make sure that the laws that govern natural resource management are right, that they are based on the best available science, that they are conservative, erring on the side of caution, and that abundance is high on the priority list of both managers and legislators. And because managers and legislators take their cues from stakeholders, abundance has to be a value esteemed highly by recreational hunters and anglers too. And that means education and action, making sure that our opinions are informed, and that we speak up and speak out, that we make our opinions known to managers and legislators.
Travelling across the Texas panhandle in 1899 for the Bureau of Biological Survey, naturalist Vernon Bailey, counted all of 32 pronghorns. Over a century later, in the same region, I saw hundreds, thanks in no small part to the efforts of conservation-minded sportsmen in the intervening years. It shows what’s possible, and holds open the door to hope for a better future.