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Where The Antelope Play…or Played

September 15, 2016
Abandonned adobe general store at Ocate, New Mexico

Abandoned adobe general store at Ocate, New Mexico; the front might be sagging, but the adobe walls are in very good shape, something that cannot be done without a great deal of continued care, attention…

Getting To Mora, New Mexico

There are several ways to get to Mora, New Mexico from the north, three principle ones. There is a highway that goes south through the mountains on U.S. 285. Reaching Rancho de Taos, turn left on to State Highway 518; spectacular I am told. Or traveling down I-25 across Raton Pass, one can either exit at Wagon Mound, or, a bit further on, at Watrous. The route from Wagon Mound, State Highway 442, passes through Ocate, Ojo Felix and La Cueva, there meeting up with State Highway 518 five miles from Mora. Leaving I-25 at Watrous, the road goes along the Mora River Valley past Golondrinas on State Highway 161 before connection to 518 a few miles south of La Cueva. From Watrous, the same Highway 161, a curious U-shaped road, one can also get to Fort Union National Monument, a poorly known, historically significant national monument that used to provision all the U.S. forts in the western region for decades in the 19th century.

For people unfamiliar with this part of New Mexico, both roads to Mora through Wagon Mound or Watrous cut through breathtaking scenery. On the Mora-Watrous road, which we took returning to Denver from Mora, we saw a herd of domesticated bison just before Golondrinas on Highway 161. On our way to Mora, especially between Wagon Mound and Ocate, there were antelope, a lot of antelope. We stopped counting after having sighted more than forty. They tended to congregate in small groups, four or five, a few individual stragglers here and there – sprinkled mostly to the north of Highway 442 for miles on end – as our Mora host and Denver neighbor, Sandy Garcia, had predicted.

As we stopped the car repeatedly to look at them through binoculars, many of the antelope would plot down to a sitting position and remain immobile until they were convinced that “the threat” (us) had either passed or wasn’t much of a threat at all. Those that did that were sufficiently camouflaged that they were hard to discern from the surrounding scenery even with binoculars. Later I would read that sitting down on the open grasslands  and lying motionless is probably a “deep time adaptation,” especially of pronghorn fawns who in past lives (more on this below) hid from an assortment of high plains predators by remaining completely still within the tall grasses, sometimes all day long.

At the turn in the road at Ocate we also saw something else, whose skill pronghorns don’t have. We watched as a white-tailed deer jumped a six foot barbed wire fence from a standing position and then casually lope off towards the mountains. This something I’ll return to below.

Pronghorn Antelope where the prairie met development in Aurora, Colorado, November 2011

Pronghorn Antelope where the prairie met development in Aurora, Colorado, November 2011

Pronghorn Antelope: Historical Context

Lately, having lived in the West most of my life, I’ve become aware of how little I know of nature, the animal world around me. On occasion I’ve seen wildlife, some common, some not. It is, for the city boy I am and will always be, a thrill. Once, outside Crested Butte in 1978, I saw a mountain lion on a rock shelf across a creek from where I was hiking with family. I’ve seen black bears a couple of times, deer frequently; more recently I watched beaver and muskrat along Clear Creek. Although I’ve seen many a beaver dam, only once, a few months back in the spring, did I come face to face with my first beaver in the flesh; he (or was it she?) was too busy to take anything but occasional notice of me. Elk, deer and pronghorn antelope are common enough as is the splendid bird life that exists or passes through these parts.

But what do I know about these animals? In the end, mine is such a superficial, shallow understanding of nature, and of anything at all outside the strange goings of humans. Nor now am I attempting to become “an expert” on animal life; it is rather to get to know at least some of the fellow creatures with which (or is it “whom”?) we share life with on this planet and with which (or is it “whom”?) we, all of us are connected genetically through evolution, and as living things, also, to use a word I rarely do, spiritually (whatever that means). I just don’t want to be a stranger to other animals and plants, and take my place, not above, but simply alongside of the rest.

And so it is with pronghorn antelope.

I’ve never seen so many at one time as on the Wagon Mound-Ocate road in New Mexico. Still, I have seen antelope here and there over the years before our recent trip to Mora, New Mexico. It’s hard not to see them in Wyoming where their numbers are quite numerous, in Colorado just below the Wyoming state line between Ft. Collins and Cheyenne, WY, a few years ago we saw a small herd of about a dozen some ten miles east of Denver in Aurora. Occasionally they have appeared along I-25, the major north-south interstate in Colorado, south of Pueblo as well. This should be of no great surprise as after nearly falling over the edge – or, more bluntly, having been pushed, pronghorn numbers have rebounded significantly.

Today there are some 700,000 of them in the United States and Canada today, a full half of them, a good 350,000 in the state of Wyoming, 70,000 in Colorado as recently as 2008, 45,000 in New Mexico, another 13,000 in Texas. As a consequence of the long-term drought that has effected the Great Plains states, these number are decreasing.  But to give a sense of how close to the edge of the precipice the species found itself: if there are somewhere in the range of 700,000 pronghorn today, barely a century ago, these same Great Plains states fed and hosted some 15 million.

Speed mattered, jumping didn’t count for anything. Retreating to tight circular movements was apparently also useful, keeping predators from picking off one of their group and, as the pregnant females were often in the middle of the circle, protecting the genetic future of the species. These particular survival mechanisms, so useful for so long, begin to lose their evolutionary advantage when humans start to hunt pronghorn on the Great Plains 10,000 years ago and as the open range is closed off by hundreds of thousands of miles of barbed wire. What was once irrelevant became critical. One might ask, well, haven’t pronghorns had the time to genetically evolve so as to jump fences? The short answer is probably not. Although it sounds like a long time period, immensely long in fact to us humans, from the point of view of the history of the earth, measured in billions of years (4½ billion = 4,500,000,000 to be exact) ten thousand years is a very thin slice of time. What worked genetically for so long in the past 150 years became a barrier once barbed wire, put up to protect the modern holiest of holies, private property.

floresSystematic hunting, and barbed wire fences dropped that number to barely 13,000 nationwide by around 1900. Imagine 15 million of them – almost as many as the bison whose near extinction pronghorns very nearly shared. As Dan Flores notes in his fine little volume on the extermination (or near-extermination) of Great Plains  fauna, American Serengeti

“The commercial market hunt of wildlife in the West, initiated by the fur and robe trade, got underway on the Great Plains in earnest n the 1820s, but for almost three-quarters of a century – as long as the beaver lasted, bison roamed in number enough to produce robes, hides, and tongues, and wolves and coyote still were targets of traps and poison bait – it left pronghorns largely alone…But it was not until the 1880s, that pronghorns finally began to attract attention in the slaughter of Great Plains animals for profit”

By the 1880s only two “charismatic” Great Plains animals remained standing: wild horses and pronghorn antelope.  The wild horses wound up caught and sold overseas to supply Europeans during their wars, or by the 1920s shot by cowboys as nuisances or rounded up for dog food. Then it was the pronghorns turn to face the sad music of extinction. The attack on the pronghorn came from a number of different directions. Homesteading over vast regions of the Great Plains tore up the prairie grasses; the ranching overstocking of the plains with cattle and sheep limited the grassland vegetation vital for pronghorn survival. One of the other killers was barbed wire. Unlike deer who can broad-jump fences 7-8 feet high, and that from a standing position, strangely enough, pronghorn antelope are poor jumpers.

Caught against fences in large numbers they were easy kills for prairie pioneer farmers and ranches.

Pronghorn antelope exhibit a number of contradictory forms of behavior concerning their survival…at least at first view. On the one hand, according to some sources (quoted by Flores) – easily the fastest mammal on the earth’s surface capable of running up to 55 miles an hour for two miles and as such out running the fastest feline cats include cheetahs. The lighter females can go even faster, 65-70 miles an hour. Then there is “the other hand.” But jumping barbed wire fences? Nope. Such barriers stop them cold as happened in the 1880s. In an age of fenced property throughout its range, the inability to hop fences is nothing less than a deadly shortcoming.

There are several other “strange” behaviors:

• when threatened, herds of pronghorn come together in a tight circle and rotate round and round. Shot at by modern hunters, they don’t scatter, but continue to circle in what becomes a deadly merry-go-round. Bison, it turns out, act in a similar manner.
• pronghorn have another behavior that has made them vulnerable: they tend to be home bodies, occupying the same range over long periods of time.
• while in maturity, pronghorns can outrun whatever challenge, their young are vulnerable and have a high mortality rate, victimized today by coyotes.

Certain appears that pronghorn genetic evolution is missing some badly needed DNA.

However, this results in understanding pronghorn behavior without any appreciation of the animal’s long evolutionary history. What is the genetics that equips pronghorns with some powerful escape mechanisms (speed) but in other ways appears renders them so vulnerable to modern hunters that one has to wonder why they did not go the way of the bison. Looking for an explanation to this apparent contradiction becomes less than a mystery when looking at pronghorn history through the lens of the long durée. How long? Well, at a minimum a 2-4 million year time span is needed. Again, Flores describes it well:

“Pronghorns emerged in their modern form at a time when the American Great Plains was the scene of one of the grandest assemblages of savanna-steppe creatures anywhere on earth, a more diverse collection of animals than are present in the African Serengeti or Masai Mara today. Along with elephants and long-horned bison and the enormous herds of horses and zebras, along with bands of numerous types of camels and deer, and of course elk and pronghorns, the Pleistocene Great Plains of the past 2-4 million years featured an array of truly formidable predators that hunted and scavenged among the millions of ungulates. Pronghorns spend the better part of 4 million years perfecting their ability to survive where large and fast predators looked hungrily at them over bright teeth.”

In the more recent past, those not caught by barbed wire fences to block their migrations and trap them, the bitter cold of that decade did. But the biggest whammy came from another direction: hunting for the market. Although as Flores points out, their leather and tough meat made them less desirable targets for hunters, once the bison – and everything else – gone, they became next on the list. In a short time their numbers plummeted. So intense was pronghorn killing for sport, market that their numbers plummeted to a paltry 13,000 from what had a few decades earlier been a population estimated conservatively at 15,000,000. Only a major effort to save them, spearheaded by former President Theodore Roosevelt saved the pronghorn from going the way of the bison.

The Long View

The outlines of the long, multi-million year evolutionary journey of ungulates (great grazing mammals – mammoths, deer, elk, antelope, horses, camels etc.) in North America, is being unlocked and sketched in greater detail all the time. The near extinction of pronghorn parallels that of other animals, great mammals, who wandered what is now the Great Plains of the United States, not for centuries or millennia, but for millions of years. Then sometime between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago, relatively recently from the viewpoint of geologic time, for a number of reasons, they ran into a buzz saw that killed them off in great numbers. Although most of the American ungulates died out, some were able to cross over from Siberia during those periods, ice ages, when the oceans shrank and animals could essentially walk across to Alaska from Siberia.

Pronghorn antelope are an integral part of that history; they have a long and illustrious presence on the Great Plains of North America, a part of which occupies the Eastern half of Colorado that ends suddenly with the mountains that jut up from the ground dramatically and mark the end of that region that extends from the Missouri River to the Rockies and from Alberta, Canada to Northern Mexico. Denver sits at the nexus of the two. Depending on which way a person is looking determines their attitude towards the place. Go fifteen miles west of Denver and the approaches to the Rockies open up; but go east, out past the ever-expanding border of Aurora, Denver’s neighbor to the east and in a short distance the Great Plains open up and continue to do so for at least the next 600 miles.

Needless to say the Rockies to the West with all their drama, spectacular – not to use the word lightly – scenery beckons. The plains to the east at first glance appear less inviting – flatter, dryer, with winds, storms and tornadoes barreling through, not much greenery except close to the river basins, it gives the appearance of a harsh place, a boring place, for people unfamiliar with it. But it isn’t. True enough it takes time to appreciate its genuine diversity geographic, ecological diversity, and especially to appreciate what it once was…and could be once again, America’s version of the Serengeti Plain of Africa. It was teaming with life, ungulates of all kinds whose descendants we know has horses, camels, bison, elephants, and pronghorn antelope. There were predators too, great agile ancestors of bear, mountain lion among them.

Before that – long before – the Great Plains was an underwater part of the Great Late Cretaceous Seaway; in the remains of that  ancient seaway are found the imposing maritime fossils of Xiphacticus and others that swished around what today is Kansas, Eastern Colorado, Nebraska. In fact the geological history of the Great Plains and the life forms that lived there, either underwater, or later, over the past 13,000 years, living off the great grasslands.

Comparing the Great Plains of today’s central regions of the United States with the Serengeti Plains of East Africa, calling it “American Serengeti” comes from a book with this title by Dan Flores, a longtime writer and researcher of plains life. The term is striking at first. How can one compare the Great Plains of the United States, whose grassland and the fauna on them long gone, with the rich diversity of the African Serengeti? On the surface one is seems to relatively barren, a large area  “west of the 100th” (the 100th meridian) where, without the irrigation waters of the Ogallala Aquifer and the great rivers that flow through the area (Missouri, Platte, Arkansas, Kansas just to name a few) not only farming would be impossible, but human habitation in the region itself difficult at best, unlikely being more to the point. Where as the Serengeti is teaming with life.

Until around 200 years ago, the Great Plains hosted as much wildlife as did the Serengeti.

A review of Flores’ book sums it nicely:

America’s Great Plains once possessed one of the grandest wildlife spectacles of the world, equaled only by such places as the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, or the veld of South Africa. Pronghorn antelope, gray wolves, bison, coyotes, wild horses, and grizzly bears: less than two hundred years ago these creatures existed in such abundance that John James Audubon was moved to write, “it is impossible to describe or even conceive the vast multitudes of these animals.”

There is a well-worn folk song, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”…long time passing. It is a metaphor on the destructive consequences of modern warfare. Maybe the words should be changed to “where have all the bison, grisly, wolves, pronghorn, elk, deer, coyote gone”? The coyote is a survivor. Some, deer and the elk, have retreated to their former main grazing grounds largely out on the plains to the mountains; most, as is well-known were, in short order, exterminated. Among those that escaped nature’s version of the Holocaust were coyotes and pronghorns. Besides being as adaptable as humans to different environments, coyotes developed an evolutionary strategy of reproducing to fit the times. As their number decreased through bounty hunting they reproduced more and found new environments to live in. In the case of the pronghorns, they nearly went the way of the bison, but extraordinary speed and intelligence resulted in their being able to weather “the storm.”

Dan Flores and “American Serengeti”

About a month ago, through my life long friends Margy Stewart and Ron Young, co-directors of the Bird Runner Nature Preserve in the Flinthills east of Junction City, Kansas,  Ron Parks spoke enthusiastically about Dan Flores’ “American Serengeti”. A few years prior Parks had published The Darkest Period, The Kansa Indians and Their Last Homeland: 1846-1873a book I am in the midst of reading. Some of the discussion focused on Flores’ and his recently published book on the near total elimination of Great Plains ungulate and canine flora in the 19th century, just prior to and (mostly) after the Civil War; These were the critical years, the “take off” period for American capitalism: rising industrialism in the East and parts of the Midwest, the explosion of economic monopolies, the “closing” of the frontier from the Mississippi to the Rockies with the associated intensified displacement, ethnic cleansing of the Plains Indians and the annihilation of its food supply, the bison.

Parks’ work is how people, a Native American group that had the misfortune of living along the Sante Fe Trail, the Kansa. Although not decimated like the Cheyenne and Arapahoe at Sand Creek (1864) and Summit Springs (1869), the land allotted to them by treaty is continually reduced, sliced into smaller pieces until they are finally expelled to a reservation in Oklahoma. More on that particular story and Parks’ book in the near beyond. Dan Flores looks at assault on animal life (bison, wolves, coyotes, pronghorns, etc) during the same period putting in context the historical, evolutionary journey each species experienced.

At some point in the discussion with the Parks, both Ron and wife Judy, Margy S. and Ron Y, I vaguely remembered that twenty-five years ago, in 1991, I had attended a Dan Flores discussion and book signing in Lubbock Texas, with another old friend, Janie Bergen, living there at the time. After all this time, I remember what he talked about, and how original was his thinking.

At the time, Flores had just published an earlier work Caprock Canyonlands: Journeys into the Heart of the Southern Plains (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1990). I even remember the main theme of his talk: he spoke about people who wrote fiction (or non) that explored the history of a place, how place marks all living things upon it, human or otherwise. By way of example, he cited Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome DoveThe talk interested me enough so that besides buying the book, I went out the next day and visited the Caprock Canyons some distance east of Lubbock.

I should not be so surprised that years later Flores would once again help  me understand something more of pronghorn antelope, what Nancy and I were looking at west of Wagon Mound, New Mexico.

 

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