Antelope Ennui

The pronghorn’s lack of adaptability when faced with alternative environments is well understood

By Rob Breeding

When we personify wildlife — think Bambi or other varieties of Disney talking species — it’s not always a bad thing. Personification is often just shorthand, a way to soften elements of the story and blunt the impact of its most severe plot twists.

Bambi is a children’s classic, a tale of sorrow from which the young prince emerges as a future king of the forest. But imagine how it might have played out if furry forest critters hadn’t stood in physically, for what were essentially human characters in spirit.

Instead of being a favored tearjerker, Bambi, in which the title character’s mother is killed by a hunter, would have been banned from the children’s section altogether.

There are folks who take this personification thing too far. Anti-hunters for instance. And some activists, who fret, or file lawsuits, when hunting is suggested to manage wildlife.

I engage in a bit of personification myself. I’ve categorized certain critters as animal ideologues. My ideologues aren’t hardcore Democrats or Republicans, but rather species that have adopted peculiar behaviors to exploit unique ecosystems. As long as these ecosystems remain intact, the ideologues do well. But when these systems are altered, or wiped out, generalists thrive.

I don’t have anything against generalists. Who among us doesn’t appreciate coyotes, after all? But generalists don’t capture my fancy. It’s the ideologues I obsess over.

Bull trout may be the Flathead’s greatest ideologue — and that’s saying something in the Flathead. It’s a brilliant fish, hardwired to live in a place like northwest Montana, at least in pre-settlement times. Bull trout need cold, clean waters, both lakes and rivers. They need lakes where forage species thrive so bull trout have food. And they need rivers and streams to spawn.

All trout are cold-water species, but none are as sensitive as bull trout. Water warmer than 59 degrees begins to limit bull trout. They need water even colder to spawn, and the species favors sites where underwater springs well up in the subsurface gravel.

Mearns’ quail is another animal I can’t quit. U.S. populations are only found in southwestern grasslands along the Mexican border. Mearns’ are birds of grass, in which they hide motionless to avoid avian predators. That’s a great thing for a guy running English setters, even if I have to drive more than 1,000 miles for the thrill of the flush.

These birds can’t comprehend a world without grass. Mearns’ quail are like dry fly purists: they are going to do things their way, no matter the consequences. For the birds, that means dying in the claws of Cooper’s hawks when hungry cattle clear the grass.

Still, my favorite animal ideologue upon which to project human-like qualities is the pronghorn. I regularly see lone bucks, off in the distance, just standing out on the plains. They’re not walking or feeding, just standing.

I try to imagine what’s going on in the brains of those pronghorn. They seem to be contemplating the plains and the meaning of all that flatness, an overwhelming landscape that they are powerless to transform.

Rendered helpless in all that space, they are stricken by ennui. Pronghorn, I imagine, wearily contemplate the plains as, from their point of view, that’s all there is.

The pronghorn’s lack of adaptability when faced with alternative environments is well understood. Allow trees such as piñon pines to encroach on the plains and suddenly pronghorn are vulnerable to mountain lions. Run barbed-wire fence across that flat landscape and the vertical obstruction stops them like the Great Wall of China. Alter the mix of forbs and shrubs pronghorn rely on for food and they starve while surrounded by an otherwise verdant prairie.

The pronghorn may be an animal of the grasslands, but it is too fussy a gourmand to dine solely on grass.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.