by Nancy L.C. Steele
Whenever I am driving through grasslands in Arizona, I am delighted if I see a herd of pronghorn. Sometimes I am rewarded with a glimpse of these sleek creatures as I drive southwest from Jerome on the way to Prescott. The remaining pronghorn of the so-called Glassford Hill herd, however, are destined to die out as housing fills the landscape. Other herds of pronghorn in Arizona have more room to roam and expand their numbers. How we are taking care of pronghorn in Arizona is today’s story.
Pronghorn are the “antelope” in Home on the Range – “Where the deer and the antelope play…” And yet, they are not antelope at all. Although they are ungulates and distantly related to deer, pronghorn’s closest living relatives are giraffes and okapi. Pronghorn have horns that they shed every fall and they live only in America. True antelopes live mostly in Africa and keep their horns for life. Pronghorns have no close relatives today in the Americas.
Second fastest after cheetah in recorded top speed, pronghorn are built for distance running. In a contest with a cheetah, even though a cheetah is slightly faster, the pronghorn has a good chance of winning based on endurance. This hypothetical pairing would only happen under artificial conditions, however, as pronghorn live in America and cheetah live in Africa.
A pronghorn is well equipped to have a head start against any predator. Along with their exceptional speed, pronghorn have large eyes relative to their body size, with near 300 degrees of sight and good long-distance vision.
If you think in terms of binoculars, pronghorn’s vision is equivalent to 8 power vision. The 8x magnification makes the view of the world around them appear eight times closer than to the naked human eye. They can see movement from four miles away, which is helpful in a prey species that lives in grasslands.
Another thing to know about pronghorn is that they aren’t built for jumping. When they run up to a fence, they will crawl under rather than try to jump over. Three stranded barbed wire fences are barriers, restricting pronghorn movement.
Prior to European settlement, it is estimated that there were 35 million pronghorn in the western U.S. Driven almost to extinction by the late 19th century, pronghorn rebounded to a present day population of around 800,000 to 1 million. Their biggest threat today is loss of habitat. One form of habitat loss is the fragmentation that comes with housing and rangeland fencing. Pronghorn migrate long distances, 100 to 150 miles, along historic corridors. In northern Arizona, one such corridor occurs south of I-40, in an area that includes the Verde watershed.
Recently, Friends of the Verde River partnered with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, and Arizona Wildlife Federation to support wildlife corridors. This working group created a space where many agency folks could come together to create resources to share with landowners and improve their land for wildlife movement.
AZ Game and Fish was tracking pronghorn movements in an area north of Tuzigoot. They noticed that two herds seemed to be prevented from connecting with each other. They determined that fencing and dense vegetation around the river were keeping the pronghorn apart.
And then government land managers found the skeleton of a pronghorn that had tried and failed to jump a fence. This macabre sight mobilized the group. The working group is identifying fencing that is no longer needed, places where fences are still required, and likely river crossing areas based on movement studies and known requirements of pronghorn.
Coconino National Forest volunteers surveyed fences in the area. CNF wildlife staff worked with range staff to determine which fences were unnecessary and could be removed. Volunteers removed old, unnecessary fencing in March and April.
To monitor project success, Forest Service staff is using remote trail cameras. The photographic evidence has shown that pronghorns are now crossing where fences were removed, restoring their historic connection to another pronghorn herd.
There are two more projects on the wish list – replacing the bottom barbed strand with smooth wire and allowing them to cross the river. Forest Service staff have set up cameras to monitor areas where pronghorn appeared to be going under fences, identifiable by hair in the barbs. They are also trying to determine the best places to modify to restore connections cut off by the river.
With more work yet to be done, this wildlife management success story is just one example of the power of collaboration combined with science. Pronghorn are extensively studied as a game animal in the west. They require our commitment to keeping their range open. Fortunately, collaborative efforts such as our wildlife corridor working group exist to solve problems and save wildlife.
This article was originally published in the print editions of the Cottonwood Journal and the Camp Verde Journal in May 2022.