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Original Issue


Hunting in pronghorn country is a trip through time

Most hunters seek memories as well as meat—an engraving of afterimages that can be read long after the last haunch of venison is consumed and the horns have gone dusty on the game-room wall. With luck, hunting is an anthology of odd sounds, strange sights, queer bits of lore and fact, beauty and grotesquery glimpsed through the low-sun autumn light.

Hunting journals are never composed after dark. Energy levels simply cannot sustain contemplation following a full day in the field with every sense operating at maximum level. Even so, these notes seem particularly cramped, hurried, skittery as lizards on hot rock, written as they were in the lee of a boulder during a hasty lunch. The pages stick together, spattered with bits of peanut butter, dark dots of dried blood, and here—what's this?—a withered sliver of onion. It must have fallen there when we ate the antelope liver. We fried it with bacon and onions in the windy half-light. We were cold, but the meat was sweet and tender. Now the onion sliver becomes a form of calligraphy recording that day's hunt.

It is a creature of strangely mixed characteristics, for it has the feet of a Giraffe, the glands of a goat, the coat of a Deer, the horns of an ox and Deer combined, the eyes of a Gazelle, the build of an Antelope and—the speed of the wind.

That may sound like something from a medieval bestiary, but actually it's Ernest Thompson Seton's paean, written in 1913, to the pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana), the North American continent's unique contribution to the big-game roster of the world. The pronghorn is monotypic—the sole representative of its family, genus or species on earth. Like a giraffe, it has no dew-claws. Like a goat, it does have a gallbladder. Like a deer, it has brittle, hollow hair and horns that branch. Unlike any other animal, it both sheds its horns annually and retains them. To explain: The outer horn sheaths fall off but the inner, bony cores remain.

The pronghorn wasn't always a monotype. From its arrival in North America—probably from Asia—during the middle Miocene epoch some 18 million years ago until the end of the Pleistocene 11,000 years ago, the antilocaprid evolved into at least 13 genera and dozens of species and subspecies. This was the age of gigantism, with giant bison (Bison latifrons) that had horns spanning nine feet tip to tip and monstrous dire wolves that could chomp a contemporary Great Dane in a few bites. But, according to Dr. Michael Voorhies, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Nebraska, none of the pronghorn's ancestors exceeded the modern animal's height and weight (3½ feet at the shoulder, about 120 pounds) by more than 20%, and some were plain tiny. "The species Capromeryx was no bigger than a jackrabbit," Voorhies says.

Whatever their variations in size, they were the most abundant small-hoofed mammals in North America, with estimates of the total population running from 35 to 50 million animals. Judging by fossil finds, they ranged from Florida to the Pacific Coast, from modern Saskatchewan on the north to Chihuahua in the south. Then, in the late Pleistocene epoch, their numbers and variety suddenly began to decline.

"That was about the time man arrived in North America," Voorhies says. "Some paleontologists speculate that hunting pressure did the trick—Man, the Superhunter, coming into a new country. But it didn't have to be hunting alone that did it. Even a comparatively few men can greatly alter a habitat by other means."

Much attention has been paid to the kill-off of the buffalo herds, which finished just a century ago, leaving a pitiful handful of several hundred bison where once there had been an estimated 100 million. The pronghorn was undergoing a similar fate—though less spectacularly and for different reasons.

The slaughter of the American bison was quite calculated and intentional. By contrast, the near extinction of the pronghorn was almost an afterthought. Antelope were never as heavily hunted as bison; they are too keen-eyed and swift to be shot in great numbers at close range. "In no other kind of hunting," wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his 1893 book, The Wilderness Hunter, "is there so much long-distance shooting, or so many shots fired for every head of game bagged." Teddy knew of what he wrote—he had fired 14 rounds from his Winchester at ranges of up to 400 yards in order to drop one "prong-buck."

Where buffalo and pronghorn coexist, they feed side by side, but not on the same forage. Buffalo prefer grass, while pronghorn primarily eat sagebrush and forbs. When buffalo were in abundance, they kept the grass cropped, allowing the shade-intolerant sage and forbs to flourish. But when the bison were shot off, the grass grew unchecked and smothered the prime pronghorn feed. Not until cattle and sheep came in abundance to eat the grass did favorable grazing conditions return for the antelope.

Another factor in the pronghorn decline was the end of "open range" with the introduction of barbed-wire fencing in the late 19th century. This locked already shrinking pronghorn bands into ever-smaller blocks of country, where the animal's well-known reluctance to jump fences made it easy prey to packs of horsemen and hunting dogs. Though a healthy adult pronghorn can long-jump 27 feet and leap eight feet straight up in the air, it will for some reason not even try to clear a 30-inch-high strand of wire.

All of these factors combined to bring antelope to the brink of extinction. By 1924 the U.S. Biological Survey could count only 26,604 pronghorn in the U.S. and 30,326 in all of North America. With the fate of the buffalo still rankling in the public's mind, a tough conservation ethic had become firmly entrenched across the land, thanks largely to the pioneer efforts of Roosevelt. Game departments throughout the West closed the season on antelope. Predator-control programs went into effect. The Boone and Crockett Club and the National Audubon Society established antelope refuges. Wildlife biologists convinced ranchers that antelope did not compete directly with their stock for grass. Some stockmen even replaced top-to-bottom sheep fences with wiring that left a gap at the bottom for pronghorn to slither through.

Wildlife does not need much encouragement from man to snap back. By the end of World War II, pronghorn populations were strong enough to permit hunting in a few states, and today there are nearly one million antelope alive and proliferating in 17 states from Oklahoma to Oregon. Even California—where the pronghorn census had fallen to a scant 1,000 in 1923—now allows hunting by permit for the annual excess in its herd of 7,000 animals.

Wyoming, with its vast stretches of sagebrush flats, counts 400,000 pronghorn and holds an annual drawing for about 85,000 antelope permits. Each hunting party is restricted to a certain zone. My partner, Roger Marlow of Santa Rosa, Calif., and I each drew one of those permits, and found that our assigned territory was in Zone 56, south of the town of Rawlins and west of the North Platte River.

Rawlins (pop. 11,547; elev. 6,755 ft.) is a quiet town on the Union Pacific Railroad with plenty of tough little cowboy bars, a library with an excellent collection of Western Americana and a museum full of the usual old clothes, arrowheads, corroded buffalo rifles and dim photographs of dead rustlers dangling from lampposts. Rawlins is also the home of the former Wyoming State Penitentiary, a forbidding stone edifice that was closed in 1981. Until recently a plaque out front informed the world that Butch Cassidy served a stretch there, but the claim was discovered to be incorrect and the plaque was taken down.

Local hunters told us there were some "big honkers" near the buttes along the river in our assigned zone. I wondered to myself if "honker" was yet another regional nickname for pronghorn—along with "goat" and "sage billy."

"Well," said Marlow. "it sounds like they're back where we want them. Early in the season the antelope stay pretty close to the roads. Only when the hunting pressure hits them do they stay away from the fences. Oh, we'll see lots of average heads near the roads. Normal horns for Zone 56 run about 12 or 12½ inches," said Marlow. "But we want something better than that. Thirteen is a respectable length. Fourteen you start getting into the exceptional class. Fifteen inches and more is Boone and Crockett record-book length. That's what we're shooting for."

Marlow is a tall, thin, brown-mustached man of 55 with gold-rimmed glasses and a James Joycean twist to his features. Born in Wisconsin and raised on white-tailed-deer hunting, he says the pronghorn is now his favorite big-game animal: "It's uniquely American, the fastest and sharpest-eyed critter on the continent, and when you hunt them the only decent way—on foot, day in, day out, far off the road—they're as challenging as any whitetail, blacktail, mule deer or elk could be."

We drove south from Rawlins and immediately began seeing antelope—some within sight of the outlying houses. The rut was still on, and we passed bands of does—as many as 20 in some groups—ruled by a single mature buck. Controlling such a harem is demanding indeed. Not only must the buck impregnate each of his crowd of concubines, but also he must run each of them down to do so and at the same time somehow keep the rest of the herd from wandering vaguely away. Also at the same time he must make very sure some lone buck doesn't sneak in and do his primary job for him while he is otherwise engaged. Polygamy is tough work.

Marlow explained to me how to recognize a good set of horns. A pronghorn's ear is about six or seven inches long (thus the horns of a doe, which rarely exceed three inches, are all but invisible). Halfway up the buck's horn is a projection known as the "prong" or the "paddle." If the paddle is higher than the tip of the buck's ear, the horn is a 14-incher or better. The thickness of the paddle at its base and the degree of the curve at the tip of the horn also indicate size—the thicker and the steeper the better. The horn tips of older bucks turn an ivory color, which is another desirable characteristic.

"Those are general guidelines. You'll know a really good buck when you see him. He'll just leap out at you and hit you in the eye." Marlow laughed. "The trick is to see him in the first place. By now the big guys are back there." He pointed at the red-rimmed buttes far to the east, beyond the rolling blue-gray sprawl of sage.

From the highway, the sage flats appear smooth, gently undulating and offering no cover at all for a long stalk. This is an illusion, for as we hiked across the flats toward the rimrock buttes, each few paces opened up a new, if muted, topography. Arroyos, invisible from the highway but capacious enough to hide a fleet of semitrailers, made sudden appearances. Mere bulges in the horizon when seen from the road turned out to be knots of sage thick enough to offer excellent ambush. Even though icy rain was spitting down, the country smelled spicy-sweet with the sage we crushed beneath our boots.

We dropped down into a steep, brush-choked arroyo, spooked two cottontails and climbed the far bank on a trail cut by antelope hooves. Marlow, who was leading, suddenly dropped to his knees. He made a horn sign with the first two fingers of his free hand. "There's a buck just over the ridge about 30 yards ahead," he whispered. "I saw his horns. Don't think he saw me, though. You belly on up there and look him over."

The crawl was agony. I advanced on elbows and knees, my rifle cradled war-movie style across my arms. Long-spined prickly-pear cactus would suddenly sprout just where I'd planned to move next. I felt thick and sluggish in the 7,000-foot altitude. As I neared the ridgetop, heart pounding, I heard a curious sound: gnoing, gnanng, gnoinnnnggg! It was the antelope band. I peeked over the top and saw bright white rumps disappearing uphill, a quarter of a mile away already.

Marlow got up and shook his head, smiling. "There was an old doe off to the right. She saw you and gave the alarm. Sounds kind of like a Jew's harp, doesn't it? A Jew's harp muffled in cotton wool. But it carries a hell of a ways. That's why the locals call them honkers, I guess." Question answered.

We climbed to the rimrock: tall, red, flat-topped buttes footed with scree and boulders the size of houses. The wind moaned around the cliff faces. From our vantage at the foot of the cliffs we could see the country all around, clear over to snow-crested Medicine Bow Peak to the east, and down to the Colorado mountains south of us. The aspens were going gold in the mountain draws, and the higher ridges looked a dusty pale-blue where the snow had already stippled them. In the sage flats below us we saw dozens of antelope bands, hundreds of animals. We studied them through Marlow's binoculars. None of the bucks looked exceptional. We spent the rest of the day practice-stalking them. After the first crawl I felt less awkward and twice got within easy killing range—150 yards in one case, 100 in another—of normal (i.e., 12-inch) bucks.

There were many solitary bucks standing around out on the flats. The dominant males butt them out of the bands as the rut intensifies. Most of the loners are yearlings who have never before been separated from their bands, and they seem puzzled by the isolation. Often, seeing a man in the distance, they will walk forward—sometimes actually run—as if eager for companionship. Their eyesight, according to biologists, equals that of a man using eight-power binoculars, so it seems unlikely they mistake the human figure for another pronghorn. The literature of the Old West is studded with references to hunters attracting an antelope by tying a bandanna to a stick, which the pronghorn obligingly approaches until he is within rifle range. Probably more often than not, that antelope was a lonely loner.

All told, that first day we could have shot two average and four subpar bucks. "And we were just sightseeing," Marlow said. "If all you're out for is meat, it's easy to fill your tag. I'd hate to do that, though. If on that first stalk I found myself on top of a 16-incher, I'd probably convince myself it was just a runt and look the other way. It's the hunting that's fun, not the killing. Of course when it comes at the end of a long hunt, a week or two of steady sunup-to-sundown stalking, then the killing is a proper climax, the only fitting one."

Over the next three days, scouting for honkers, we did enough hiking, climbing, knee bends, belly crawls and slow pushups at the end of the stalk to feel as if we had been in boot camp. All the bucks—and we got within 50 yards of some—seemed to have come out of the same cookie cutter. All were what Marlow called normal, none exceptional.

We did, however, get plenty of chances to observe antelope in all their moods and modes. One windy morning, looking down from the rimrock, we got to see two bucks face off for battle over a band of does. The challenger tried to lure the harem master away from his charges, then circle around and make off with them. It didn't work, but the two antelope must have run 10 miles before the issue was resolved.

Twice we saw pronghorn in the act of mating, but mainly we heard the inevitable twanging of antelope Jew's harps and saw the flash of disappearing rumps. The white rump hair is another pronghorn warning device. The vivid white hairs stand erect when the antelope is alarmed. Ernest Thompson Seton called this the antelope's "heliograph." The resultant flash can be seen for miles—literally. The pronghorn is clearly the fastest runner among North American wildlife—some argue in the world. For years hunters and naturalists alike have disagreed on just how fast that is. Seton, some 70 years ago, said 32 mph; he compared that to a greyhound, which, according to him, tops out at 30 mph, a Texas jackrabbit at 28, fox at 26, coyote at 24 and gray wolf at 20. He argued that a thoroughbred racehorse at 34 mph could run a pronghorn down. Maybe, on an off day for the antelope. The late Jack O'Connor, who hunted just about every horned animal on the globe, maintained that the pronghorn was faster even than the African Thomson's gazelle and the Indian black buck, two frequent candidates for world's-fastest honors.

As they crossed the Dakota plains in 1804, Lewis and Clark were astounded at the speed of the "antilopes." Meriwether Lewis wrote: "I think I can safely venture the asscertion [sic] that the speed of this anamal [sic] is equal if not superior to that of the finest blooded courser." (It's fascinating to read the journals of the two great explorers: Either of them could spell the same word three different ways on the same page.)

Well, we saw plenty of antelope running, and if someone told me he'd clocked them at 100 mph, I would be slow to disagree.

What we did not see much of was other hunters. Most of Zone 56 is controlled by Bolten Ranch Outfitters, which charges a hefty $50 fee for permission to hunt its land. Considering that antelope permits for Wyoming residents are just $15 (out-of-staters pay $105), pressure in Zone 56 is light.

One afternoon we hunted clear around the southerly bulge of the rimrock, into an entirely new country. Behind us were the saddles and box canyons we'd hunted for five days. Now the rimrock slanted shallowly downward to the east, and deep, broad, green washes ran down to the flats below. Many antelope were feeding in those washes and in the big sprawl of marshy, arroyo-cut lowlands to the south. While I glassed the terrain for decent heads, Marlow climbed up to the rimrock for a look-see on the other side. It was windy, but the sun was shining, and in the lee of a big sagebrush it was warm for a change. When I looked back at the ridge I saw Marlow standing stock-still near the top. He gestured for me to join him. He then began making strange, sinuous hand motions, pointing close by, then shivering his forefinger, held upright. All I could figure was that he'd probably seen a good pronghorn over the ridge. I scrambled up to him.

The wind was loud up there, and I was within 10 yards of Marlow before I could hear the word. "Snake," he said. At that moment the wind died and I heard it: the hackle-raising buzz of a rattler, loud as a windup alarm clock at three in the morning.

The rattlesnake was coiled, thick and shiny, pus-yellow, not eight feet from where Marlow stood. A big one, five or six feet long, it had been sunning itself on this rare, bright autumn afternoon on a rock ledge that was chest-height above the game trail Marlow was following.

"I was within three feet when it buzzed the first time," he said with his crooked Joycean grin. "If there's one of the bastards, maybe there's more."

I looked down and immediately saw another rattler, a small one, not 18 inches from my right boot. It was stretched out nearly full length, somnolent after the cold of the previous few days. Its rattle wasn't an inch long, but the head was the ugly rounded triangle of the pit viper. I looked to the left and saw another, intermediate in size, slithering sluggishly down to the protection of dry brush. Then buzzing broke out all around us. We were in the middle of a rattlesnake sunbathing party. The big one must be the mother. Marlow counted nine more in the rocks around him.

"How the hell do we get out of here?"

"Very carefully," said Marlow. I looked at the juvenile snake down by my right foot. Slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, we picked our way downhill through the dense sagebrush. From gingerly step to gingerly step, grasshoppers leaped up with a startling, chitinous rattle of dry wings—each leap triggering another near heart seizure. I found myself laughing at the absurdity of it.

"It maketh the adrenaline to course swiftly through one's veins," I said when we reached the bottom.

"Yea, verily," Marlow laughed, still searching the ground for signs of any more snakes, "it doth."

From the benchland overlooking the washes, we could see across to our camp beside the Teton Reservoir two or three miles to the southeast. Marlow decided to hunt on foot back to camp, while I walked back the 4½ miles to where we had left the car just off the highway. We would rendezvous about sunset at the tent. I hunted my way back at a leisurely pace, jumping two bands of antelope that I recognized as the same ones we had often seen during the previous days' hunting. I sighted in on the bucks for the umpteenth time, swinging with one as he ran, heliograph flashing, into a deep arroyo. No, still not good enough.

The wind in the teeth of the rimrock roared like a jet engine. It was clouding up to the west—more weather on the way? The nine up-and-down miles I'd walked that day felt more like 20 by the time I reached the car. Back at camp I poured a drink and took the last of the sun. From the east I thought I heard a distant pop. Then another and another. An hour later, in last light, Marlow slogged into camp carrying the haunches and head of a wide-horned buck. A nice 14-incher, it turned out.

"I couldn't get as close to him as I wanted," Marlow said. "I fired from rest, using my backpack, at 300 yards. Dropped him, but then he was up and running, limping a bit from a shoulder shot. My second shot knocked him down again, but again he upped and ran. Then he sat down a long ways out, looking back at me from behind a sage. After I tried to hit him in the neck but missed, he ran about 50 yards more and stood. Damn, I thought, I don't want to lose you! Not hit the way you are. I crawled up on him this time and put him down with my fourth shot, but he was still alive. I had to finish him. Five shots, four holes." He shook his head sadly, sick at it. Every hunter knows the feeling and hates it. You want it to be clean, but when it isn't, it takes the edge off.

The next morning I set out to hunt the wash east of where Marlow had killed his buck. There was crisp frost on the sage. A big raft of ducks rose from the reservoir with a muffled ripping sound, like yards of tearing tissue paper, and circled in the low early light, flashing pale gold as they headed out on the next leg of the fall migration. It was clearly a day for action.

I hunted my way down the southern edge of the wash, jumping three groups of antelope along the way. One band was all does—five of them—and they watched me blandly, then trotted away with the stiff-legged gait that reminded me of East African antelope you see on Wild Kingdom. Apart from the frost, the country looked African, too.

I crossed the wash, checking hoof-prints in the mud where water ran. Then I worked my way up a bare, rocky ridge that separated this arm of the drainage from the larger wash to the north. Near the top I got down on my hands and knees, took off my blaze-orange hat and tucked it away in my jacket and crawled to the ridgeline. The far wash was thronged with antelope bands. All of them were well beyond the range of my rifle, a .30-06 Winchester firing a 150-grain cartridge. Then I caught movement nearby, on the far slope of the ridge where I lay. I watched three does and an average buck feeding not 50 yards from me. Still not good enough. For half an hour I surveyed the wash, trying to figure approach routes to the bigger bucks that were feeding just out of rifle range. Finally I saw a possible route and I belly-slid down the reverse slope. I walked to the end of the ridge separating the washes and checked the animals again. Someone had seen me. The bands I'd been watching were drifting away, up toward the rimrock where we had met up with the rattlesnakes. The scouts—old does, usually—kept looking back over their shoulders at me from half a mile away.

I was about to drop into a Groucho Marx crouch and start after them when I decided to check the ridge on my left one final time.

There he was.

He was down on the slope not far from where I'd first lain to scrutinize the far wash, only about 300 yards from where I knelt right now. His head was turned away. I could see that his horns were good. When he turned in profile I saw that the paddles were well clear of the tips of his ears.

I eased back the way I'd come, belly-crawling in reverse, until the ridge was between us. Then I ran as quietly as I could until I reckoned I was just east of him. There was a low saddle in the ridge at this point, and I crawled up to it with all the stealth and cautious care I could muster in my eagerness, not even feeling the prickly pears as they spiked my knees and palms. I got to the rim of the ridge, nestled close behind a big sage and peeked around. He was still there. He was still looking the other way. I could see only his rump, his neck and head. The horns looked even better at this range—no more than 80 yards. But the shot was not yet open.

I eased back downhill, crawled a bit to my right and up to the rim again.

I slid the rifle forward, but he caught the movement. He jumped up. For a moment the buck stood there staring straight at me, poised to spring uphill in an instant. His left side faced me, and I laid the crosshairs on his heart-lung area, just back of the left shoulder. He bucked at the shot. He stumbled, then he began to run uphill.

No! I thought, It's going to be like Marlow's. I was on my feet, the rifle up and—pow!

He was still on his feet, still running!

But then as he dropped down the far side of the ridge, at last he slowed and stumbled again. Only the tops of his horns showed against the skyline. Then the horns wavered. They dropped sideways out of sight.

When I reached him he was dead. The first shot had hit exactly where I'd laid the sights. Even with his heart and lungs hit he had run 50 yards uphill before he died. Adrenaline.

I gutted, skinned and quartered him up there on the ridge-top. The antelope across the way kept feeding, watching me as I worked. It was sunny, almost warm. The strong west wind dried the blood on my arms into a coppery glaze. I was far, far from the highway, far from any other man, eons removed from Rawlins and the 20th century. These antelope feeding in the wash might have been the same ones the Utes hunted half a millennium ago. Or even, with a deeper warp in time, a more ancient antilocaprine form, maybe the Stockoceros onusrosagris, a four-pronged antelope with Y-shaped horns. I have always liked that species name, onusrosagris. It comes from the combined names of the two American Museum of Natural History novitiates who first discovered the fossil remains of the critter in 1934 in the Papago Caves of southeastern Arizona. J.W. Burden (onus in Latin) and Quentin Roosevelt (rosagris, roughly translated "rose field," i.e., Roosevelt).

I slung the rifle across my shoulders, picked up the results of my butchering and headed across the ridge through the warm wind, and back to camp.

There would be many memories of this hunt long after the meat was gone.