Location: Eastern Montana
An impressive tail of dust chased our Tahoe as we rumbled along the unpaved county road in eastern Montana. The patchwork of public and private lands, delineated in square-mile plots, seemed filled with little more than silvery sage, dried up grasses and black Angus cattle, but a closer look revealed a plethora of wildlife including birds, mule deer and pronghorns.
Pronghorns (Antilocapra Americana) fascinate me. These lithe hollow-furred mammals can run faster than a human only a few days after birth. A large male stands about three-feet high at its shoulder and weighs under 150 pounds. Named for the distinct prong that protrudes from its forward-pointing horns, it is the only horned animal that sheds and regrows its horns each year, like moose, elk and deer shed their antlers.
Bands of pronghorns roam the prairie sustained by a variety of grasses, shrubs and cactus, some of which domestic animals find unpalatable or toxic. One of the many North American animals noted by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by the late 1800s, their populations became dangerously low due to over hunting. They’ve since recovered, and now number between 500,000 and 1,000,000 depending on who’s counting.
It was hunting season on this day, and these suspicious ungulates, which can run over 50 miles per hour, did not wait around when we stopped to get a better look at them through binoculars. Pronghorns are second only to cheetah among sprinters in the animal kingdom, but unlike cheetah, they can sustain at least half that speed for many miles.
We pulled off the road a full quarter-mile from 30 pronghorns. They disappeared instantly over a low ridge following a fence line. I marveled at their speed and grace as I recalled one of the main conservation challenges for this species, fences blocking their migration corridors. Though they are fast, they rarely jump fences. Luckily, many ranchers now raise the lowest string of barb wire allowing antelope to pass under more easily. And they seem to know where they can do this. An hour later, we watched another skittish herd race down a fence line, then crawl under it at a specific spot, losing little momentum in their mad dash across the prairie.