Pronghorns Making a Comeback in West Texas
By Travis Putnam Hill
The famed folklorist John Lomax is credited with capturing the first recording of the classic western song, “Home on the Range,” in which a San Antonio saloonkeeper sings that familiar chorus, yearning for a home “where the deer and antelope play.”
The antelope he sings about are actually pronghorns, similar-looking but unrelated to those found in Africa. Pronghorns once roamed in the millions across large swaths of North America, but by the time Lomax published the tune in 1910, the animal had been pushed to near- extinction.
With the help of pioneering conservation programs, pronghorn herds made a comeback through much of the 20th Century. But several years ago, the herd in West Texas took a sudden dip, alarming ranchers and scientists alike and bringing together a diverse coalition of interested parties to rescue the pronghorns.
“The pronghorn is really part of our history. It’s something that’s been here longer than man has,” said wildlife biologist Louis Harveson, who leads Sul Ross University’s Borderlands Research Institute.
“They’re an indicator of habitat and the health of the ecosystem,” he said. “If we lose pronghorn, what are we going to lose next? Where do we draw that line in the sand?”
That line was drawn when Harveson and his researchers teamed up with local landowners, veterinarians, hunting guides and state and federal wildlife agencies to save the shrinking herds — and they’ve had some success. The West Texas pronghorn population has more than doubled in just four years.
Pronghorns are the fastest land mammal in North America, capable of reaching speeds over 55 miles per hour — an adaptation likely developed to outpace predators that went extinct more than 11,000 years ago.
As many as 35 million pronghorns once inhabited a range stretching from south-central Canada to the high plains of central Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. But a combination of hunting and human settlement in the latter half of the 19th century nearly wiped out the entire species. By 1915, an estimated 13,000 pronghorns remained on the continent.
The conservation practices that began almost 100 years ago introduced hunting restrictions and habitat protections for pronghorns. That led to an increase in the population all the way through the 1980s, when the herds of West Texas peaked at more than 17,000 animals, representing about two thirds of the state’s entire pronghorn population.
Through the next two decades, pronghorn numbers in West Texas ebbed and flowed, never again reaching that high of the late 1980s. Then in 2008, the population plummeted again, the result of drought, disease, predators and barriers to movement. By 2012 there were fewer than 3,000 pronghorns left in the region.
“It was a historic decline,” said Shawn Gray, leader of the mule deer and pronghorn program at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Pronghorn herds in West Texas had been hit by drought in the 1990s, but they recovered to a degree from that dry spell. Something was different this time, and the folks involved in the restoration effort knew that rainfall levels alone couldn’t explain the persistent decline.
Scientists took samples from pronghorns killed by hunters and from the animals’ scat and found signs of several diseases, as well as high loads of barber pole worm, a bloodsucking roundworm that attaches itself to the stomach lining.
They also found that man-made obstacles such as fences, roads and railroads kept some herds isolated and unable to move onto new grazing fields.
“We handicapped them a little bit, and we didn’t realize that was as big a problem,” Harveson said.
On top of all that, many fawns weren’t surviving past six months, their deaths attributed mainly to predators like coyotes and bobcats and to the parasite infestations.
“We really didn’t find the smoking gun. We found a whole bunch of them,” Gray said. “All those culprits aren’t surprising when you talk about wildlife populations and what causes declines. But really what was alarming was the short time frame that it happened, and how interrelated these factors were.”
But almost as rapidly as the die-off occurred, the collaborative effort to revive the shrinking West Texas herds took form.
“This whole thing started with private landowners,” Harveson said. “Really, there is no conservation in Texas without private landowners.”
That’s because more than 95 percent of land in Texas is privately owned.
It was the landowners who first noticed that the pronghorns in West Texas were in trouble. Dr. Dan McBride operates a ranch in Hudspeth County. He also is a veterinarian with a practice in Burnet and one of the state’s best-known pronghorn hunters.
“I started taking fecal samples and looking at them clinically, and I started picking up a lot of parasite eggs — more than what we would think would be healthy,” McBride said. “And as I made that comment to Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel, well, it didn’t fall on deaf ears.”
Along with Parks and Wildlife officials, the landowners and other private individuals joined forces with Harveson’s team to form the Trans-Pecos Pronghorn Working Group. They’ve been able to finance their work with funds from the Wildlife Restoration Act, which collects money for conservation through taxes on firearms and ammunition, as well as with private fundraising. As of February, they’ve raised $854,000 of the estimated $1.4 million cost of the entire project.
At the heart of the group’s revival effort is a practice they call translocation. It basically entails capturing pronghorns from the Panhandle — where the animal has become increasingly abundant — and transporting them to release points in the Marfa area.
For the pronghorns, the translocation process looks harrowing: A helicopter swoops down on a herd sprinting across the plain. A man leaning out from the fuselage aims a net gun at the pronghorn unlucky enough to have strayed from the pack and fires. The net ensnares the animal and sends it rolling in a tangled mess, at which point the helicopter lands and someone runs out to tie, blindfold and sedate the animal. The antelope, dangling in a bag below the helicopter, is flown to a staging area where a team of researchers and volunteers take blood and tissue samples, provide medications and load the animal into a trailer for the eight-hour drive to Marfa. A pronghorn that was racing across the Great Plains of Texas in the morning finds itself in West Texas that very night.
Despite its seemingly traumatic nature, the translocation program is credited for much of the recent rise in the West Texas herds. More than 530 pronghorns have been relocated from the Panhandle since 2011, according to Harveson. A 2015 TPWD aerial survey estimated there were more than 6,000 pronghorns in the West Texas herds, more than double the 2,751 animals counted at the low point in 2012.
Gray believes it would have been difficult for these depleted populations to bounce back without that sort of human intervention. “You’ve got to get more to make more,” he said.
Human intervention doesn’t stop there. West Texas landowners are actively engaging in pronghorn conservation efforts on their properties. They are modifying fences to allow for easier passage, controlling the predator populations, conducting brush control and other habitat improvements and adding water sources.
So what’s the incentive for these landowners to spend their time and money on these creatures when they could be focusing on making money? For one, the cost generally doesn’t come out of their pockets. A combination of private donations and public funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service reimburses the landowners for their conservation activities.
Harveson said he believes private landowners are this country’s best stewards.
“They realize that that is a role that they have, that these resources have been entrusted with them,” he said. “They wake worried about these animals, and they go to bed worried about these animals. And they implement practices that benefit our resources.”
Perhaps the primary reason for the landowners’ concern is emotional, related to their “Home on the Range” and the feelings expressed in the old song.
“Deep inside they have a love for pronghorn,” McBride said. “It’s something you can’t put an adjective on it. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”