Jones, Robert F

Pursuing America’s Unique Antelope

It is a creature of strangely mixed characteristics, for it has the feet of a Giraffe, the glands of a goat, the coat of a Deer, the horns of an ox and Deer combined, the eyes of a Gazelle, the build of an Antelope and-the speed of the wind.

That may sound like something from a medieval bestiary, but actually it’s Ernest Thompson Seton’s description, written in 1913, of the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), the North American continents unique contribution to the big-game roster of the world. The pronghorn is a monotype – the sole representative of its family, genus and species on earth. Like a giraffe, it has no dew-claws. Like a goat, it does have a gall bladder. Like a deer, it has brittle, hollow hair and horns that branch. Unlike any other animal, it both sheds its horns annually and retains them: The outer horn sheaths fall off each winter, but the inner bony core remains.

The pronghorn wasn’t always a monotype. From its arrival in North America from Asia during the middle Miocene epoch some 18 million years ago until the end of the Pleistocene just the other day in geological time (about 11,000 years ago), that basic antilopcaprid evolved into at least 13 genera and dozens of species and subspecies. This was the age of giants, with huge bison that had horns spanning nine feet from tip to tip (Bison latifrons) and monstrous dire wolves that could chomp a contemporary Great Dane in a few bites. But according to Dr. Michael Voorhies, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Nebraska, none of the pronghorn’s ancestors exceeded the modern animal’s height and weight (3 1/2 feet at the shoulder, about 120 pounds) by more than 20 percent, and some were tiny “The species Capromeryx was no bigger than a jackrabbit,” Voorhies says.

Whatever their variations in size, they were the most abundant small-hoofed mammals on the plains, with estimates of total population running from 35 to 50 million animals. They ranged from Florida to the Pacific Coast, from modern Saskatchewan to Chihuahua. Then in the late Pleistocene their numbers and variety began a sudden, steep decline. Climate and habitat changes, along with the arrival on the continent of Man the Superhunter, probably triggered the loss.

Much attention has been paid to the killing of the buffalo herds, which ended just over a century ago, leaving a pitiful handful of fewer than 1,000 bison where once the plains were coursed by 50 to 100 million. The pronghorn underwent a similar fate, though less spectacularly and for different reasons.

The slaughter of the buffalo was calculated government policy, to force the Plains Indians onto reservations where they would be dependent on white man’s beef and would have to learn how to farm to stay alive. Antelope were never as heavily hunted as bison; they are too keen-eyed and wary to be shot at close range in great numbers. “In no other kind of hunting,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his 1893 book The Wilderness Hunter, “is there so much long-distance shooting, or so many shots fired for every head of game bagged.” Teddy himself once fired 14 rounds from his Winchester 45-75 Model 1886, at ranges up to 400 yards, to drop a single “prong-buck.”

Bison and pronghorns feed side-byside, but not on the same forage. Buffalo crop grass, while antelope eat sagebrush and forbs. When the buff were shot off, the grass grew unchecked and smothered the pronghorn feed. Not until sheep and cattle came onto the range was the balance partially restored. But with sheep and cattle came wire fences, and though a pronghorn can jump 27 feet at a single bound and leap eight feet straight up in the air, it can’t combine the vectors and won’t even try to clear a single 30-inch-high strand of barbed wire. With the West fenced off, the shrinking pronghorn bands were easy prey for horsemen and their dog packs.

By 1924 the U.S. Biological Survey could count only 26,604 pronghorns in the U.S. Still, thanks to pioneering conservation measures established by men like Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, and William Hornaday, pronghorns slowly came back. By the end of World War II pronghorn populations were strong enough to allow hunting in a few states, and today there are about one million antelope alive and at play in 17 states from Oklahoma to Oregon. Wyoming, with its vast stretches of sagebrush flats and rimrock outcroppings, now counts about 400,000 pronghorns.

We were hunting the wily monotype through some wicked rimrock country in southern Wyoming-just poking around in the open, rolling prairies and brushy breaks below Rawlins, in the loom of the Medicine Bow Mountains. It was the height of the rut and there were antelope everywhere-all killable-but we took our time. We were holding out for respectable horns.

One afternoon we hunted clear around the bulge of the rimrock into an entirely new country. Behind us were the saddles and box canyons we’d scoured for the past five days. Now the rimrock slanted at shallow, broken angles to the east, disappearing into deep, broad, green coulees that ran down to the flats below Many antelope were feeding in those coulees and in the big sprawl of marshy lowlands to the south. Beyond loomed the distant purple mountains of Colorado with snow on their peaks.

While I glassed the terrain for decent horns, my partner climbed up to the rimrock to check out the other side. It was windy but the sun was shining; it was warm if you could find a lee. When I looked back at the ridge I could see Marlow standing stock-still near the top. He gestured for me to join him. Then he made some sinuous motions with his hand, pointing close by, and shaking his upright forefinger. I couldn’t figure it out, but maybe he’d seen a good pronghorn over the ridge. I scrambled up to him.

The wind was loud up there and I was within ten yards of Marlow before I could hear the word. “Snake,” he said. At that moment the wind died and I heard the hackle-raising buzz of a rattler, loud as a wind-up alarm clock at three in the morning.

The rattler was coiled, thick and shiny, a dirty yellow color, not eight feet from where Marlow stood. A big one, maybe five or six feet long, it had obviously been sunning itself on this rare, bright autumn afternoon on a rock ledge that was chest-high above the game trail Marlow had been following.

“I was within three feet when it buzzed the first time,” he said. He grinned his crooked grin that always puts me in mind of photos I’ve seen of James Joyce: lopsided and kind of loopy. “If there’s one rattler, maybe there’s more,” he added.

I looked down and immediately saw another-a small one-not eighteen inches from my right boot. It was stretched out nearly full-length, still logy from the cold of the previous few days. Its rattle wasn’t an inch long. I looked to the left and saw another, intermediate in size, slithering sluggishly down to the protection of dry brush. Marlow counted nine more in the rocks. Then buzzing broke out all around us. We were standing in the middle of a rattlesnake sunbathing party.

“How do we get out of here?” I asked.

“Very carefully,” Marlow said. I looked down at the snake near my boot. It looked up at me and stuck out its tongue.

Slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, we picked our way downhill through the dense sagebrush. From step to cautious step, grasshoppers leaped up with a rattle of dry wings–each launch triggering another near heart attack. It finally got so silly that I found myself laughing at the absurdity of it all.

“It maketh the adrenaline to course swiftly through the veins,” I said. “Yea verily, it doth,” Marlow said,

still searching the ground for signs of more snakes.

Ah, the joys of antelope hunting! From the benchland overlooking the coulees we could see across to our tent, a big green canvas army surplus job that Marlow’s had for years, pitched beside a little stock pond two or three miles to the southwest. Marlow decided to hunt his way slowly back to camp. I walked back the four or five miles to where we’d left the truck just off the highway We’d meet about sunset at the tent. I hiked along at a crisp pace, jumping two bands of antelope that I recognized from the previous days. I sniped the bucks for the umpteenth time, swinging with one as he ran, heliograph flashing, into a deep arroyo, but their horns hadn’t grown any longer. Still not good enough.

The wind in the rimrock roared like a jet engine. It was clouding up to the west more rain and snow on the way The ten up-and-down miles I’d hiked that day felt more like twenty by the time I reached the truck. Back at camp I wiped down my rifle, built up the fire, put some coffee on to boil, then poured myself a drink and enjoyed the last of the sunlight. We might not see it again for the rest of the week From the east I thought I heard a shot. Just a distant pop at first. Then another and another… .

An hour later, in the last of the light, Marlow slogged into camp carTying the head and haunches of a wide-paddled prongbuck, the sharp, curved horns tipped in ivory. A 14incher as it taped out later. But the Joycean grin was missing.

“I couldn’t get as dose to him as I wanted,” he said. “I fired from about 300 yards, using my backpack as a rest. Knocked him down but he got up running, limping a bit from a shoulder shot. My second shot knocked him down again, but again he upped and ran. Then he sat down a long way out, just like a dog, looking back at me from behind a sage. You can imagine how that made me feel. I got kind of frantic then and tried to hit him in the neck from 400 yards, but missed. He got up and ran about fifty yards more and then just stood there. Damn, I thought, I don’t want to lose you now-not after hitting you that bad. I took a deep breath and crawled up on him this time, very slowly, very quietly, and put him down for good with my fourth shot.”

He shook his head, sidle at it. Every hunter knows the feeling. You want it to be clean and quick. When it isn’t you hate yourself. Antelope are tough.

The following morning I set off to scout the coulee east of where Marlow had killed his prongbuck. A crisp frost had silvered the sage, causing it to glitter in the sunrise breeze. A big raft of ducks rose from the stockpond with a muffled ripping sound, like yards of tearing tissue paper. They circled in the low light, flashing pale gold as the distant aspen leaves on the Medicine Bows. The ducks headed south on the next leg of their fall migration. I took it as a good omen-a signal for impending action.

I hunted my way down the southern lip of the coulee, jumping three bands of antelope along the way One band was all does-five of them-and they watched me blandly, then trotted off with the stiff-legged gait familiar to me from years of hunting in East Africa. Apart from the frost, the country might well have been the Masai Mara or the Serengeti, with touches of the Moyowasi Swamp thrown in here and there for good measure. Seen at a distance, these pronghorns could have been kongoni or Grant’s gazelles, or perhaps a paler variety of impala.

I crossed the coulee, checking hoofprints in the mud where water ran. Then I worked my way up a bare, rocky ridge that separated this arm of the drainage system from a larger coulee to the north. Near the top I got down on my hands and knees, took off my blaze orange hat, tucked it away in my jacket, and crawled to the ridgeline. That far coulee was thronged with antelope bands. There were some good-looking bucks among them, with tall horns-the paddles well clear of the eartips. All were beyond the effective range of my scoped 7mm Remington Magnum. I’ve killed antelope, both African and American, at ranges up to 425 yards, but these bucks were half a mile away.

Then from the corner of my eye I caught movement on the far slope of the ridge where I lay. Three does and an average buck were feeding not fifty yards from me. Still not good enough.

For half an hour I surveyed the far coulee, trying to calculate approach routes to the big bucks feeding just out of range. Finally I saw a possibility. I slid down the slope the way I’d come and walked to the end of the ridge separating the coulees, then checked the bucks again. They were drifting away toward the rimrock where we’d had our run-in with the rattlers. They hadn’t panicked yet, though clearly some sharp-eyed old doe had seen me. The old does kept looking back over their shoulders from half a mile away.

I was about to go into a low crouch and follow them when I decided to check the front slope of the ridge on my left one final time. There he was.

He was lying down on the slope, half hidden by sage, not far from where I’d lain to scrutinize the far coulee just ten minutes before. Only about 300 yards from where I knelt right now. His head was turned away from me. I could see that his horns were first-rate. When he turned in profile, I saw that the paddles were well clear of the tips of his ears.

I eased back the way I’d come, belly-crawling in reverse, until the ridge was between us. Then I ran as quietly as I could until I calculated I was just east of him, with only the ridge separating us. There was a low saddle in the ridge at this point. I crawled up to it with all the stealth I could muster, scarcely feeling the prickly pears as they spiked my hands and knees. I got to the rim of the saddle, nestling in close behind a sage, and peeked around. He was still there. Still looking the other way. His horns looked even better at this range-no more than 80 yards. But the shot was not yet open, not with him lying down that way. Sage scrub covered his heart/ lung area, and I didn’t want to risk a neck shot. Even if I connected, the 150-grain hollow-point would ruin a lot of hide and spoil a head mount.

I eased back downhill and crawled a bit to my right, then up to the rim again.

I slid the rifle forward, but he caught the movement. He stood up quickly For a moment he started straight at me, poised to spring uphill on the instant-those big bulging black eyes. I laid the crosshairs just in back of his left shoulder. He bucked at the shot, stumbled-then ran uphill.

No! I thought. It was going to be a repeat of Marlow’s buck. I was on my feet, the rifle up as he ran…pow!

But then as he topped the ridge he slowed, faltered, stumbled again. He fell downhill, out of my sight. I could see his horn tips against the skyline. They wavered. They dropped sideways.

Na kufa… He was finished.

When I reached him his eyes were already glazing. The shot had taken him just where I’d laid the crosshairs. Even with his heart and lungs exploded, he’d run fifty yards, straight uphill, before he died. Adrenaline.

I skinned, gutted and quartered him up there on the ridgetop. The antelope across the way kept feeding, watching me as I worked. It was sunny now, almost warm. The strong west wind dried the blood on my forearms to a coppery glaze. I was far from the highway, far from the other man, far removed from time and geography, from modern culture itself.

When I had finished I slung the rifle across my shoulders, picked up a haunch wrapped in cheesecloth, and holding the head by one craggy black horn, struck out across the ridge, through the warm wind, back to camp.

I’d return for the rest of the meat later.

Copyright Hearst Magazines May 2000

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