New Beginnings For Yellowstone's Pronghorn
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. Symbolized by "the twins," Gemini is a fitting characterization of one particular natural phenomenon during this time in the Northern Range of Yellowstone: the fawning of new pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), also known as antelope. Each season, the pronghorn mothers almost always give birth to twins -- two new fawns.
Pronghorn are commonly touted as "the world's fastest land animal over distance" (second only to the African Cheetah in raw speed). But it is the twin fawning, for me, that is the most memorable facet in the life of the pronghorn.
Pronghorn fawns seen in mid-June 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, at once, both fragile and resilient.
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, as fawns spend most of their days lying still, alone, amongst the rock, the sage and grasses. Remaining motionless for hours at a time, up to a half-mile from their mother, is their primary defense against coyotes and eagles, common predators of pronghorn. Once pronghorn are a few weeks old they can simply outrun everything.
But between the drought and record temperatures we are having this summer, I've seen the Yellowstone forage dried to a crisp and going to seed weeks before it should. 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.
Driven by ancient instincts to migrate, the Yellowstone pronghorn move north to Montana's Gardiner Basin and Paradise Valley. Here, the playing field is no longer level and hasn't been for over 100 years. Development, degraded habitat and fences have blocked the pronghorn migration corridor since 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.
Ironically enough, thanks to the unique physiology that allows them to run up to 30 mph indefinitely, the pronghorn's one fatal flaw is its difficulty jumping fences. Unlike deer and elk, which gracefully bound over virtually any fence, pronghorn need to awkwardly crawl under them. So when faced with the absolute barrier presented by woven sheep fencing, barbed wire close to the ground, or a decorative wooden fence, the pronghorn are, in a word, stuck.
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. 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. Meanwhile, a local rancher replaced his old-school barbed wire and wooden jack fences with wildlife-friendly alternatives.
Yet despite the hard work of our enthusiastic volunteers, cooperating landowners and ranch managers, skeptics wonder if the work is just "moving widgets" around under the guise of conservation.
Well, the results speak for themselves. Three years into our on-the-ground wildlife program in Yellowstone, pronghorn are already able to move more freely than they have in generations. 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 as far back as any local landowner can remember.
During the June 2012 fawning season, a number of pronghorn mothers made the Yankee Jim Canyon their place to start a family and have their litters. The native grasses and forbes, along with good cover, provides ideal fawning habitat while the young grow and learn quickly to withstand the rigors and threats of life in Yellowstone. Pronghorn families are staying in this area much longer than they used to, landowners say.
This season, 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 from concealed prey, to bounding balls of ears, eyes and legs, and finally 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. Will you join me?
Joe Josephson is a 4th generation Montanan born and raised along the Yellowstone River. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.