Moseying: Living La Vida Llanero
Pronghorns and the professional biologists to whose care they are entrusted
May 30, 2007
If I described an animal species thusly; Unique to North American grasslands, the only animal in the world with horn sheaths, can run over two miles at 45 miles an hour, has a huge heart and lungs and high counts of hemoglobin, incredible eyesight, hair like velcro, and are amazingly curious, what would be your answer? You might say antelope, but it is not. It is properly known as the pronghorn.
Eleven Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists met at the Sibley Nature Center on May 21st and 22nd for a Pronghorn Committee meeting. Midlands Calvin Richardson and Philip Dickerson were present, as was Duane Lucia from Lubbock. Staff and board members of the Sibley Nature Center have worked with these three gentlemen in the past, so I cornered them and asked permission to interview the group.
Calvin seemed to hesitate, It is just an internal agency meeting. I doubt that our agenda will interest the general public. We are talking about hunting permits and techniques of their issuance, survey techniques, evaluating herd units through analyses of genetic markers in their DNA, and the need to know more about their seasonal movements in the rangeland/cropland/CRP mosaic of the Panhandle. He cocked his head back and then added, I will have to see if the other folks will agree if we should mention one other topic.
The first paragraph is a series of quotes collected from the group when I asked them to talk about why each were impassioned about pronghorn. Tim Bone, from Alpine, talked about the pronghorns of the intermontane grasslands in the Davis and Glass Mountain region. It is amazing how curious they are. Visitors to our region stop to take pictures of them from the roadside, and the pronghorn will sometimes approach closer to the fence, just to take a good look at the tourists!
Pronghorn almost never jump a fence. Mr. Bone also mentioned that some ranchers are changing their fences to help pronghorn move from one pasture to another. In places where ranchers turned to sheep during the droughts and put up netwire fences we saw some significant declining populations. On four and five strand barbed wire the pronghorn are able to go under a bottom wire placed at 18 inches.
Danny Swepston, from Canyon, mentioned their diet. They eat forbs what people call weeds. I asked the group what the pronghorns ice-cream plants were the ones they seem to love to ingest, in season. In dry times they will go for cholla, ephedra, and locoweed. When yucca starts to bloom, they eat the stalks like mule deer do. Engelmann daisy is another one sometimes to the point that you can only find the species along the roads and not out in the pasture.
Gene Miller, also from Canyon, added to the list, They will do some browsing on woody plantssaltbush, catclaw, and littleleaf sumac. I was surprised to learn that bindweed was a favorite, too. It is high in protein, and their teeth grind up the seeds, so they do not spread the species. A day later Dickerson dropped by the Sibley Nature Center with an additional list of plants. Greggs Dalea from the sandy habitat, Apache Plume from the gravelly soil habitat, bundleflower from the mid-grass prairies in the breaks, and old mans beard from the draw habitat are also favored plants.
Silver bladderpod is another favored food that wonderful March blooming wildflower that will cover hundreds and thousands of acres. The charming low-growing xeriscape ornamental plains zinnia is another ice-cream plant. They like the spurges, too. That also surprised me, for the sap of the genus can cause serious dermatitis in humans. When I asked the group if any plant was toxic to pronghorn, only tarbrush was mentioned, and that was only toxic in severe drought conditions and if they were in a pasture with netwire fences that prevented the animals from being able to disperse to better pastures.
Miller pointed out that pronghorns do well when the grassland ecosystem is preserved. The pronghorn is an icon of the ecosystem. If they are doing well, then everything else is. Bone fiddled at a laptop for a moment and then commented, In the year 2000 pronghorn populations were at their lowest since 1977. Another low occurred in the 1950s. Prolonged drought will hit them hard. Populations have built back up since 2000, but their available habitat has shrunk. In the Panhandle where there is a considerable amount of farming, for example, and in the Rolling Plains where so much of their habitat has seen incredible growth in brush in the last 30 years. They need to be able to see about them it is their first stage of defense.
Misty Sumner, from Kent, spoke about pronghorn movements in the winter. They go up into the foothills, or down into the brushy draws. In the Panhandle the pronghorn will go to the breaks (canyons) in cold weather, but they will go to winter wheat fields, too. Swepston mentioned that was the only conflict that landowners express concern about pronghorn presence. In cold winters, we have had a few pronghorn come down from Oklahoma and even Kansas, but it does not happen with regularity.
When the group spoke about seasonal movements, I remembered that Texas Parks and Wildlife has transplanted pronghorn in years past. When I asked about transplanting, Tarrant told me that between 1939 and 1992 the agency moved over 6000 pronghorn. We found out if we moved small numbers of pronghorn the new herd would slowly die out. If we moved them into areas with less than 10,000 acres of pronghorn habitat, they died out. We did have some excellent results, though. The Department doesnt conduct transplants anymore.
Miller continued, We restored a public animal (wildlife belongs to the people of Texas) on private land. Much of the work was done with Pittman-Robertson dollars received in the sales of guns and ammunition. Sportsmens dollars have done the most for pronghorn conservation. Millers comment about wildlife on private land led me to ask if there were any programs in place for landowners to receive assistance in managing their land for pronghorn.
Richardson turned to the others. Should we? Everybody nodded. One of the reasons for this meeting was to discuss details of an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) for pronghorn in the Trans-Pecos region. Brush control would be a major part of the program. Pronghorn get their water from their food, so developing waterings is not as important for them. Another part of the program would be to help pay landowners to redo their fencing so the animals can travel freely about the landscape.
It was a distinct honor for the Sibley Nature Center to host the Texas Parks and Wildlife Departments Pronghorn Committee. I admire their professionalism and dedication to pronghorn management and conservation.