Prairie Ghosts

By Beacon Staff

There aren’t many pronghorn running around the Flathead Valley. It’s a significant drawback to living there, that and the gray winter skies that linger until spring.

The nearest herds are down on the National Bison Range. I’ve spotted them a few times from the highway headed south out of St. Ignatius. That’s a little far in my book as they’ve long been my favorite big game animal.

I fell in love with antelope – I use the names pronghorn and antelope interchangeably, though I realize antelope isn’t technically correct — way back in my days in Southern California. I’d started writing for local newspapers, and a friend tipped me off on a good story: antelope were returning to the Antelope Valley.

Antelope Valley is north of Los Angeles, and the high desert there historically held pronghorn. Then the subdivisions carved up much of the habitat, and hunters finished off the remaining stragglers. But back in the 1980s a big ranch that sprawls between the LA basin and the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley reintroduced pronghorn on undeveloped ranch lands. We gathered early one winter morning just off I-5 at the Tejon Pass. The Pass is about 4,000 feet, and this particular day it was cold enough that the precipitation that fell the night before left 3 or 4 inches of snow on the ground. While we waited to drive the antelope to the release site we killed time glassing mule deer on the hillsides high above the interstate.

I was pretty much a city boy at that point and was poorly prepared for winter conditions. I came under significant ribbing for my poor choice of shoes, topsiders that quickly became soaked in the melting snow. Apparently you can’t get the city out of the boy no matter how long he’s been gone, because I got the same treatment last week at the Class AA state soccer tournament at Kidsports for wearing inadequate footwear to another snowy event.

When they opened the stock trailers and let the critters out I got my first ever look at a pronghorn and quickly forgot my frozen toes. One by one pronghorn exploded from the trailer a dozen yards away. Some stood for a moment, unable to get their horns around the idea that they were once again free. Most bolted for the hills, some stotting at first, then breaking out into a full sprint. The pronghorn gathered on a hillside above the release site. It was easy to imagine they were waiting for the rest of their comrades to be released, but in reality the dazed animals were probably so disoriented they were just trying to gather themselves before a new threat arrived.

I’ve haven’t kept close tabs on those Antelope Valley antelope, but friends say the herd has been doing well, increasing to the point were it has even supported limited hunting.

I never hunted pronghorn in California, but I have chased many in Montana, albeit unsuccessfully. When I lived in the Bitterroot pronghorn were a short drive away in the Big Hole. On one hunt we spotted a herd of about 30 animals moving south. It was late in the fall and we figured the animals were headed to better winter range out toward Dillon. The pronghorn had funneled into a draw near Wisdom, which allowed us to get above the animals just over the ridge and try to work ahead of them for a shot.

Unfortunately, even a pronghorn just moseying along is moving at a pretty fast clip. That meant that we had to run, because even an Olympic sprinter is just moseying by pronghorn standards. Throw in the 7,000-foot elevation and it felt like my lungs were ready to explode. We eventually got ahead of the herd, but left ourselves exposed when we dropped over the ridge to try to get a shot. Pronghorn are more than just the Western Hemisphere’s fastest land animal. They’ve also got the sharpest vision.

An old buck spotted us trying to hide behind sagebrush too small for the task.

They made their best impression of those pronghorn bolting from that stock trailer long ago, and then they were gone.

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