Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Faster Than a Speeding Pronghorn—Not!

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 55-56.

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There are no native antelope species in North America. Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) may remind us of antelope in Africa, but they are taxonomically distinct. Pronghorn currently range in every western U.S. state save Washington, three Canadian provinces, and three Mexican states.

Ranking very high on the charismatic-megafauna scale, pronghorn are unforgettable. With coats of tan and brown overlaid with liberal splashes of white (every one looks a little different), they can be seen across much of the Oregon Desert. Actually the size of a domestic sheep, pronghorn look much bigger because of their longer legs.

They are named for the distinct prong, or fork, in their headgear, which serves to prevent permanent harm in fighting among males (mostly over females).

Pronghorn commonly eat forbs in the spring and summer, but they often rely on sagebrush tips in the winter. They will most likely be found within 5 miles of water.

Like deer, the males are called bucks, the females does, and the little ones are called either kids or fawns. They prefer low sagebrush as it allows them to better see and run. As social animals they are quite vocal (their call can often sound like a sneeze). They also communicate by the use of the white splotches on their rear. All these behaviors provide for the common defense.

Historically, grizzly bears, cougars, and wolves were major predators of pronghorn, but today most of that work is done by coyotes, who along with golden eagles often prey upon kids.

Robert Frost be damned, fences do not make us good neighbors to this species. Pronghorn can't jump! They never needed to. While pronghorn don't jump, they do swim (see Jordan Craters National Monument).

Of most concern is competition with domestic livestock—particularly in drought years. Livestock eat forbs that would otherwise be available to pronghorn does. The result is the does go into the winter less healthy and have smaller fawns.

Biologists estimate that 30 to 60 million pronghorn existed at the time of the European invasion. Today, even though the population is only around 1 million (about 23,000 in Oregon), the pronghorn is an excellent conservation success story. In 1915, only 10,000 to 15,000 of the animals remained. Market hunting, wanton slaughter, sod busting, and other kinds of habitat destruction brought the species to the edge of extinction.

A federal excise tax on guns and ammunition provided money to state wildlife agencies to bring back the species. Pronghorn numbers increased 1,500 percent from 1924 to 1976 through the control of hunting, transplanting of herds on historical ranges, conservation, restoration of habitat, and other actions.

Most amazing is the pronghorn's speed. Other mammals may have faster bursts of swiftness, but they can't maintain it for miles. Accurate measurements are rare, but speeds of between 50 and 60 miles per hour have been noted. It is difficult to get the test specimen to precisely parallel the test vehicle for adequate measurement periods, however.

Pardon the anthropocentrism, but pronghorn run for fun. Numerous cases exist in the literature of pronghorn racing automobiles. Most memorable to this author were three bucks in Hawks Valley. The road was (relatively) straight and smooth, and the trio challenged the truck. The driver accelerated to pace them, all the while trying to stay on the road, avoid rocks, holes, and other animal life, and watch both the pronghorn and the speedometer (52 miles per hour!).

After a few miles, the leader burst ahead and across the road in front of the truck and slowed again to the pace of the vehicle. It is obvious that this ruminant racer knew full well of the pitfall ahead—a road washout. Brakes were immediately applied, and later so were new shock absorbers. It was worth it. A once-in-a-lifetime experience (and the new shocks have a lifetime guarantee).