New Beginnings for Yellowstone’s Pronghorn
by Joe Josephson, NPCA’s Yellowstone Wildlife Fellow
As the season rushes into high summer, I’m left thinking fondly of the past month in Yellowstone National Park and Paradise Valley near my home in Livingston, Montana. The fickle transition from spring to summer is often associated with the astrological sign of Gemini, or twins, and this is especially fitting for me, because every June, the pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) I work to protect almost always give birth to twins.
Perhaps my own June birthday makes me biased, but for me, the twin fawning is the most memorable facet in the life of the pronghorn. Pronghorn fawns prancing behind their mothers makes all seem right in the world. Graced with what looks like a permanent smile, perky ears, and long eyelashes accentuated by a highly evolved skull and circulatory system, baby pronghorn are fragile and resilient.
Pronghorn are the world’s fastest land animal over distance (second only to the African Cheetah in raw speed). Able to outrun any predator within weeks of birth, pronghorn’s most vulnerable time is during the first weeks of life as they get their legs under them. I consider myself lucky that I caught a glimpse of baby pronghorn this June, because fawns spend most of their day lying still, alone, amongst the rock, sage, and grasses. Remaining motionless up to a half-mile from their mothers for hours at a time is their primary defense against common predators like coyotes and eagles, until they can simply outrun everything.
Although many pronghorn are born in Yellowstone National Park, no pronghorn live exclusively in the park. Driven by ancient instincts to migrate, the Yellowstone pronghorn move north to Montana’s Gardiner Basin and Paradise Valley. Here the odds are stacked against them and have been for more than 100 years. Development, degraded habitat, and fences blocked the pronghorn migration corridor as early as 1920. Faced with a mere 19 square miles of poor winter habitat and isolated from other animals, the last remaining Yellowstone herd has been squeaking by for decades at around 200 animals.
Summer 2012 marks my third season as the Yellowstone Wildlife Fellow for National Parks Conservation Association. For the past three years, NPCA has been removing and modifying fences in the pronghorn migration corridor, increasing and improving access to quality snow-free winter and fawning habitat.
Ironically enough, thanks to the unique physiology that allows them to run up to 30 mph indefinitely, the pronghorn’s one fatal flaw is difficulty jumping fences. Unlike deer and elk which gracefully bound over virtually any fence, pronghorn awkwardly need to crawl under them. So, when faced with the absolute barrier presented by woven sheep fence, barbed wire close to the ground, or a decorative wooden fence, the pronghorn are stuck.
As I watch the forage going to seed and dried to a crisp weeks before it should in the drought and record temperatures we are having this summer, the pronghorn’s search for additional habitat is as relentless as the inevitable winter. The twins are reluctantly being weaned, the bucks are beefing up for a heady fall season where they won’t eat for over a month during the rut, and the does simply need to recover from giving birth to two fawns that weighed up to 17 percent of their own body weight.
With the support of Nature Valley’s Preserve the Parks program, NPCA staff and volunteers have removed several miles of fence north of the park on private and public lands. Our multi-year, on-the-ground, solution-based approach to wildlife issues has started to pay dividends. In March 2011, after one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record, pronghorn were seen in areas of the valley they hadn’t occupied in generations.
During the June 2012 fawning season, a number of mothers made the Yankee Jim Canyon the place to start a family and have their litters. Local landowners are noticing pronghorn staying in this area much longer than they’ve seen here as far back as anyone can remember. The native grasses and flowering plants, along with good cover, provide ideal fawning habitat while the young grow and learn quickly to withstand the rigors and threats of life in Yellowstone.
By removing numerous fences along the areas where Forest Service and private land meet, combined with another rancher replacing his old-school barbed wire and wooden jack fences with wildlife-friendly alternatives, the pronghorn of Yankee Jim have been able to live, fawn, and grow relatively unencumbered as they did over 100 years ago.
Watching the Yankee Jim twins develop into bounding balls of ears, eyes, and legs, and survive into a hopeful extension of the herd, inspires me to continue our work this summer and fall in time for a future generation of pronghorn next June.
Joe Josephson is a 4th generation Montanan born and raised along the Yellowstone River. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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