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Charismatic megafauna: bringing back the California pronghorn has been more complicated than anyone expected.


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Where the Antelope Played

Three years ago I saw my first California pronghorn in what was then the Nature Conservancy's Carrizo Plain preserve and is now one of our newest National Monuments: a small herd resting in the dry grasslands below the Temblor Range, at the northern end of the preserve. I had met this odd ungulate earlier along the Trans-Canadian highway, between the towns that I persist in remembering as Moose Hat and Medicine Jaw, and later, closer to home, in Arizona. But I had never visited the Carrizo, west of the San Joaquin Valley, where pronghorns were reintroduced in the 80s. The reintroduction had seemed evocative to me: a bit of the old California restored.

The reality, it turns out, is more complicated.

There was a time when the Central Valley was the most productive pronghorn habitat in North America: pronghorns were to valley and foothills people like the Yokuts what bison were to the Plains tribes. Knowledge of the loss of the pronghorn makes the transformed Valley landscape seem even emptier, like a North Slope without the caribou or a Serengeti without the wildebeest. The pronghorn's absence reinforces A. Starker Leopold's observation: "No region of California has been so completely altered from its original condition as the Central Valley."

Antilocapra americana ("American antelope-goat") is unique in a number of ways. Not a true antelope like the African impala and oryx, it's the only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae, whose closest kin is the deer family. Antilocaprids are American originals, evolving in the continent's savannas during the Miocene era. Some extinct forms had truly baroque horn configurations: Ilingoceros had long, spirally twisted horns with a terminal fork, while Hayoceros had two pairs, one over the eyes and the second at the back of the head. Remains of a dwarf (two feet at the shoulder) spike-horned type called Capromeryx have been found in the tar pits at Rancho La Brea. Unlike true antelope, pronghorns shed and regrow their horn sheaths annually, retaining a bony core. Both sexes are horned, the does' typically shorter and without the hook or prong.

Apart from the European roe deer, the pronghorn is the only non-tropical ungulate in which the males mark and defend physical territories, staked out in March and held through the fall rut. Bucks use the scent glands located beneath their ears to mark boundaries. (The species is richly endowed with glands, including a pair on the rump which produce alarm-signaling odors, and others above the tail and between the toes.) However, mating behavior can be flexible, with males switching to blocking rivals' access to females rather than protecting a territory. Does evaluate prospective mates by their ability to defend either a territory or a harem. The fawns, usually twins, arrive in late spring. Single parents, the females hide their young in tall vegetation until they are mobile enough to evade coyotes, eagles and other predators. In winter, pronghorn of both sexes form herds of up to a thousand animals, and migrate in search of forage.

Even as infants, pronghorns display one of the best-known attributes of their kind: speed. A two-day-old fawn can outrun a horse. Adults have been clocked at 65 m.p.h., and can sustain a 35 m.p.h. cruising speed over a distance of four miles. Adult pronghorn, in fact, are far faster than they need to be in order to escape contemporary enemies like coyotes. Biologist John Byers sees this "overdesign" as an evolutionary response to selective pressure from extinct predators. "What but the wolf's tooth whittled so fine/ The fleet limbs of the antelope?" asked Robinson Jeffers. More likely the cheetah's, according to Byers. These ultimate pursuit predators evolved in North America and shared the plains with the pronghorn until about 10,000 years ago. Other long-gone carnivores, including short-faced bears, running hyenas, and several pack-hunting canid species, may have shaped the pronghorn's swiftness.

Pronghorn leg bones are remarkably tough, able to withstand pressures up to 45,300 pounds per square inch. By disposition, pronghorns are nervous, restless, and intensely curious. Like the saiga of the Asian steppes, they reproduce early, live fast and die young; life expectancy is about five years, low for an animal of the pronghorn's size. Bucks, burned out by the rigors of mating, are shorter-lived than does.

Next page: Their superior speed was no match for our puny weapons.

Joe Eaton reviews John Byers' book on pronghorn.

Visiting the Bigfoot Museum
Willow Creek institution pays homage to legendary North Coast critter

Del Puerto Bison
Stanislaus County ranchers raise meat without searing the landscape.

Just As It Otter Be
A trip up Highway One from Cambria to Monterey shows a recovering environment can stimulate a robust economy.

Those California Cuckoos
Taxonomic wrangling and habitat destruction combine to make this bird's future a bleak one.

Animals of the Gold Rush
From Hutchings' California Magazine July 1858; a look at old attitudes about California's animals.

Hiss of the Dragon
A chat with the Komodo Dragon that bit Phil Bronstein

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