Antelope Alley

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Pronghorn run across the Comanche National Grasslands in southeastern Colorado.

Antelope are a unique North American native. However, it is, in fact, a mistake to call them antelope. Although many people refer to Colorado pronghorn by this name, their resemblance to the African antelope species (Old World members of the cow family) is only superficial. Interestingly, pronghorn have a DNA match closer to the giraffe than any other animal.

The name pronghorn is derived from the forward projection, or prong, on each horn. Sometimes up to seventeen inches long, the horn is composed of a fused hair (keratin) sheath, which covers a bone core. Unlike true horns (but similar to antlers), males usually shed this sheath after breeding each fall, and then they grow a new one. About 40 percent of females have horns, but they don’t get any longer than their ears and never fork. And only males have a black patch on the jaw below the eye.

Relative to their small stature, pronghorn have a large windpipe, heart and lungs, making them extraordinarily fast. They can maintain speeds of 40 miles per hour for several miles and purportedly run up to 60 miles per hour in short bursts. They are considered the fastest animal in the Western Hemisphere and the second-fastest land mammal in the world, after the cheetah.

“Wild Earth” contributor Connie Barlow explains why pronghorn are so fleet of foot. “The only truly and completely American large mammal alive today is the pronghorn. Not a deer, not an antelope, not a goat, the pronghorn family Antilocapridae originated right here and stayed put for 19 million years — a vestige of a by-gone era. Antilocapra Americana is ready should a long-legged hyena, a swift Arctodus bear or a cheetah be lurking over the grassy horizon.”

“It (the Pleistocene) was a fearsome environment,” observes University of Idaho professor John Byers, who once raced a pronghorn in his pickup truck, clocking it at speeds of 45 mph over two miles of bumpy prairie. “That’s why they can run so fast.” Byers, an animal behaviorist, has spent twenty years studying pronghorns in Montana’s National Bison Range. In his 2003 book, “Built for Speed: A Year in the Life of a Pronghorn,” Byers says pronghorns have a “four-chopsticks-in-a-bratwurst” body type. Slender legs attach to stocky upper bodies, which increase the velocity of pronghorns’ gaits.

“Wild Earth” contributor Tom Butler adds, “The pronghorns’ dizzying speed is a Pleistocene relict. It is an ecological anachronism, for there are no current predators (save humans in pickup trucks) that can match their speed. They are running from ghosts — from cheetahs, long-legged hyenas and other predators with which they co-evolved in North America.”

Colorado’s 2008 pronghorn herd was estimated at more than 70,000. During 2010, a record 12,301 pronghorns were taken by hunters, marking the first time the harvest surpassed 12,000. In 2011, some 11,700 pronghorn were harvested. And Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimated the 2012 herd at 80,000.

When Tim Brass (Backcountry Hunters & Angler’s Southern Rockies Coordinator) and Don Holmstrom (Colorado BHA’s Arapaho National Forest Habitat Watchmen) picked me up in Colorado Springs for a weekend pronghorn hunt on Friday afternoon, we were all antelope hunting novices, wide-eyed at the prospect of pursuing pronghorns for the first time and potentially putting some meat in the freezer for the long winter ahead.

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The author searches for pronghorn in southeastern Colorado.

We’d purchased late-season (December) tags, good for three game management units (GMUs) in far southeastern Colorado amid the Comanche National Grasslands, which cover some 440,000 checkerboard acres mixed in among private farms and ranchlands. Lucky for us, the pronghorn harvest percentage in these GMUs was well above average, making it a proverbial “antelope alley” for even beginner pronghorn hunters like us.

Our first day of pronghorn hunting mostly entailed driving around glassing sections (a section is a one-square-mile area, which contains 640 acres, with thirty-six sections making up one survey township). We tried to spot pronghorn a half mile or more away. Then we came up with a plan to get within 250–300 yards for a shot.

Bryce M. Towsley, “American Hunter” field editor, describes some of the finer points of long-distance shooting. “With a 200-yard zero, the .300 Winchester’s bullet will be about 3 inches below the line of sight at 250 yards. So from zero to 250 yards, the bullet is never more than 1.86 inches above or 3 inches below the line of sight. On big game, this means you can hold on the center of the chest, and you will hit the kill zone if you do your job.”

Towsley continued, “Even at 300 yards, the bullet is only 7.3 inches below the line of sight. If you hold slightly high, but still on the critter — on hair, not air — you will hit vitals. The key to long-range hunting is to zero for a reasonable distance, like 200 yards, and then deal with the hold-overs for longer stuff.”

Given the pronghorn’s delicate, streamlined build, it doesn’t take much to put one down. And Steven Rinella (host of the Sportsmen Channel’s “MeatEater”) recommends an unconventional shot placement: “I centered the crosshairs of my scope on her brisket, but I didn’t want to hit her there and ruin a lot of meat. It’s better to shoot clean through the ribs on broadside shots.”

Sunday morning, we dropped Don off in sight of a pronghorn herd by 6:50 a.m. While driving around to another spot where I could approach from a different direction, a lone pronghorn crossed the road in front of us and presented a shot opportunity as it moved out into the adjacent field. I stopped the truck, and Tim quickly got out and set up, with the antelope moving straight away a good 200 yards out.

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The author and Don Holmstrom on a late-season pronghorn hunt in southeastern Colorado.

His first shot missed, but was close, and the startled pronghorn kicked it into high gear. Time for one more shot, and Tim was dead on. He’d dropped his first pronghorn from 250-plus yards. It was 7:00 a.m. During this Colorado big-game hunting season, Tim also shot a mule deer and elk, completing a Colorado big-game trifecta. Later, while driving around local sections glassing for more animals, we spotted a herd a half-mile or so out and drove to within 250 yards.

Don and I stepped out of the truck, quickly uncased and loaded our rifles, picked our targets, and at 10:45 a.m. two more pronghorns were down. Although this late-season pronghorn hunt only allowed for taking does and bucks with horns less than 5 inches, we all had meat for the freezer and a memorable hunt to hold us over until spring, when I’d go after turkeys in the San Juan Mountains with my friend Rick Hooley, Colorado BHA San Juan National Forest Habitat Watchman.

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David Lien is a former air force officer, chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and author of “Age-Old Quests II: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking.”

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