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Three Steps to Pronghorn Restoration - B&C Impact Series

Members of the Boone and Crockett Club worked relentlessly not just to save pronghorn from extinction, but also to preserve the land on which they roam where they still flourish to this day.

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They go by a number of endearing nicknames: speed goat, prairie racer, sage rocket. Many call them antelope, which is a misnomer. Antelope, found mainly in Africa, keep their horns through their entire lives. Our pronghorn in North America shed their horns annually. That’s not their only unique trait. If you’ve ever spooked one while sneaking through the prairie sage, you may have witnessed their speed. They can bolt up to 55 mph, giving them the honor of being the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. At the turn of the twentieth century, that speed couldn’t outrun “progress” or western expansion. 

Three hundred years ago, an estimated 30-40 million pronghorn roamed from southern Canada to northern Mexico. A combination of ranching, homesteading, market hunting, and habitat loss pushed those numbers down to an estimated 5,000 by 1909. This figure was compiled by Club members who had created the New York Zoological Society, and those members came up with a plan to turn pronghorn populations around. 

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First, You Need Habitat 

In 1908, Boone and Crockett Club members spent $600 to transfer pronghorn from Yellowstone to the Wichita Game Refuge. They spent another $3,000 for two shipments of animals from Alberta to the National Bison Range in Montana and to the Wind Cave area of South Dakota. These efforts, though, never gained much traction to boost numbers. Pronghorn are migratory and don’t fare well when relocated to fenced environments like the Wichita Game Refuge, now the Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. Nevertheless, Club members persevered. After all, this wasn’t the Club’s first big game restoration rodeo. 

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The first came in the early 1900s with the restoration of bison by Club members William Hornaday, Roosevelt, Madison Grant, and others. They began in earnest in 1905 with the creation of the American Bison Society. Their efforts helped grow bison populations from less than two dozen to an estimated 350,000 bison today—15,000 of which can be found roaming public land. That monumental effort can be found in a separate installment of our Impact series here

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Before pronghorn restoration the Club focused on bison. Here, bison transportation from NY Zoological Park to Wichita, Kansas in 1907. 

Even with the Club’s early efforts to restore pronghorn, early Boone and Crockett member Charles Sheldon wrote to Boone and Crockett Club co-founder George Bird Grinnell that, “Personally I believe the antelope are doomed, yet every attempt should be made to save them.” At this time, the concept of a refuge system had been around for little more than a decade, the first being established by Theodore Roosevelt at Pelican Island. The idea to set aside land specifically for pronghorn originated with E.R. Sans, a predator-control hunter with the Bureau of Biological Survey, according to historian James B Trefethen. Sans had been writing to Grinnell about a possible pronghorn refuge in northern Nevada, but his idea wasn’t getting enough interest. That’s when Sans got creative. 

When T. Gilbert Pearson, Club member and then-president of the National Audubon Society, visited Anako Lake in Nevada to view some pelicans in 1928, Sans wouldn’t show him the pelicans until Pearson agreed to tour a proposed site for a pronghorn refuge. Pearson agreed to the terms, and he was promptly hooked on the idea. The Club and the Audubon Society joined together to each raise $10,000 to purchase 2,900 acres of privately-owned land with good springs. 

The Club and Society agreed to turn over the land to the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1929 only if President Hoover agreed to certain terms, which would essentially expand the area. Hoover was reportedly impressed that the two groups were able to raise the required funds to purchase the inholdings, and in January 1931, he signed an executive order that created the Charles Sheldon National Antelope Range at 34,325 acres. This got the ball rolling, and over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of acres were added to the range, which eventually became a bonafide refuge. 

Today, the Sheldon-Hart National Wildlife Refuge Complex now spans 851,000 acres and is the only major unit devoted to pronghorn conservation in the National Wildlife Refuge System. The high desert sagebrush-steppe habitat is home to not just roughly 3,500 pronghorn but also sage grouse, mule deer, bighorn sheep, migratory songbirds, 849 species of plants and 297 species of invertebrates.
 

Second, You Need Animals

Early Club efforts to restore pronghorn populations to South Dakota and Montana didn’t work—initially. These efforts were carried out at a time when the science of animal behavior was still in its infancy. For those hoping to save pronghorn, this meant they had little understanding of migratory behavior. Another issue was consistent funding. While the Club and Audubon Society were successful in raising some money, there simply wasn’t enough for full-blown restoration efforts. That’s where ingenious legislation comes in. 

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Pronghorn race across Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. Image Courtesy of Gail Collins, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 1937, excise taxes on firearms and ammunition existed, but those funds were not earmarked for conservation and wildlife restoration efforts. Nevada Senator Key Pittman and Representative A. Willis Robertson of Virginia introduced identical bills, which earmarked the excise taxes on sporting arms and ammunition to be used by the states to acquire habitat and to restore and research wildlife populations. This legislation would be known as the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (P-R), and it would be a game-changer for wildlife recovery efforts, pronghorn included. 

“One of the most dramatic achievements of the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act was the restoration of the pronghorn antelope from the brink of extinction to relative abundance,” writes James B. Trefethen in An American Crusade for Wildlife. In his book, Trefethen provides some staggering statistics thanks to funds raised by P-R. From herds with sustainable pronghorn populations, biologists were trapping pronghorn by the thousands and relocating them. In the first decade after the money was earmarked for restoration, eight wildlife agencies relocated more than 7,000 pronghorn. Between 1949 and 1953, 10 states moved 5,000 more animals. By 1954, there were an estimated 273,000 across the West and roughly 400,000 by 1976. And today, pronghorn are thriving once again, with an estimated population of 750,000. 

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And Third, You Keep Fighting 

Today, we have self-sustaining, huntable populations of pronghorn across the West, but they still face a number of serious challenges. Some herds migrate hundreds of miles from winter to summer range. Those pronghorn on the Sheldon-Hart Mountain Complex can travel up to 100 miles between summer and winter range. They don’t have to navigate major barriers like highways, but they do have to contend with invasive annual grasses, limited water sources, and livestock fencing, which inhibits movement because pronghorn typically don’t jump fences—they go under or around.  

One of the nation’s largest pronghorn herds, the Sublette herd in western Wyoming, will travel anywhere between 60-200 miles between seasonal ranges. With an estimated population of 35,000 individuals, this herd negotiates oil and gas development in the Pinedale Anticline, Jonah, and Calpet Fields. They have to navigate OR 140, the longest state highway in Oregon. In addition, they have to contend with the relatively new hurdle of solar energy, which, according to a recent study, can greatly impact their migration and habitat.  “Pressures are increasing from renewable energy sources such as wind and solar developments along the Interstate 80 corridor in the southern reaches of the herd,” notes a voluminous 2022 migration report. The good news, notes the report, is that these migrations have “...benefitted from wildlife overpasses recently built over U.S. Highway 191 at the Trapper’s Point and Boroff Hill sites in high-use portions of the migration route, and new crossing structures are planned to be built along U.S. Highway 189 south of Big Piney.”  

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Wyoming G&F collars Sublette pronghorn for additional migration data in April 2020. Photos courtesy of Mark Gocke​​​​​​​

These case studies (and many, many more found in Ungulate Migrations of the Western United States, Volume 1 & 2) provide a solid scientific footing on which Boone and Crockett Professional Members like Casey Stemler and many others use to help shape future conservation policy. An in-depth article published in the Winter 2021 issue of Fair Chase magazine outlines how science—in this case the studies of hundreds of migrating ungulates in the West—translates into policy, namely Secretarial Order 3362, which was signed in 2018 by then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. 

Thanks to S.O. 3362, states developed individual action plans that identified high-priority migration corridors. Then came the money to make the plans happen. “Through a federal grant program administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, approximately $10.5 million was used to kickstart 47 different habitat restoration projects over the first three years of implementation,” according to the Fair Chase article. Another $54.5 million in matching funds were brought to the table by various partners for conservation easements, sagebrush restoration projects, transportation infrastructure projects that reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions, and everything in between. 

“When developing policy, thinking through how that policy will be implemented on the ground is essential, and sometimes overlooked,” notes the article. “In the case of S.O. 3362, the network of Boone and Crockett Club members helped move implementation forward.” 

When founding members of the Boone and Crockett Club took it upon themselves to restore dwindling pronghorn populations a century ago, they didn’t need to raise money for wildlife underpasses or worry about energy development in key seasonal habitats. Instead, they had their own set of challenges, which essentially involved making sure pronghorn didn’t go extinct altogether. Over time, challenges ebb and flow just as herd numbers after a hard winter, but one thing will always remain. Members of the Boone and Crockett Club will continue to seek positive outcomes for our wildlife resource—just as it has done since 1887.


About the Impact Series

The Impact Series is dedicated to showing how sportsmen, members of the Boone and Crockett Club in particular, saved the wildlife and wild places of the United States. Early members of the Boone and Crockett Club comprised the movers, shakers, and initiators of the American conservation movement. They were hunters, anglers, explorers, lawmakers, soldiers, and above all conservationists. These members established laws that allowed our wildlife resources to flourish. They also protected landscape-scale geologic marvels and American icons like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Denali, and many, many more. These members may no longer be with us, but their legacy remains. This series aims to honor their accomplishments and remind us of the good work still yet to do.

 

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt