“Slow it down! This is my new truck and it’s not even broken in,” my high school friend Wayne shouted through the sliding glass rear window as he awoke in the pickup cap. My buddy James was driving as we looked at each other in obvious agreement: ignore Wayne. Our rush was simple. We were driving through the night and headed West for our first-ever pronghorn hunt. Wayne later forgave us and, despite our obvious ignorance of pursuing pronghorns with bow and arrow, we were hooked. None of us tagged a pronghorn during that hunt, but the smell of sagebrush was burned into our olfactory memory bank to forever scream “pronghorn!”
While there are many iconic animals of the West, few stand the Western litmus test like pronghorns. Commonly but mistakenly called antelope, pronghorns are the true winners of a would-be version of a North America “Survivor” TV show. As the single surviving member of the New World family Antilocapridae, pronghorns once numbered an estimated 30 to 40 million across North American grasslands and had upwards of 12 close relatives. Evolution and extinction depleted the family photo album, and the life of luxury came to an end for the modern pronghorn with the arrival of Europeans. During the opening of the North American frontier pioneers nearly decimated the population. Numbers plummeted until an estimated 17,000 pronghorn or less populated the country. Conservation efforts reversed the dismal pronghorn state, but the changing landscape of the West continues to challenge an expanded rebound. Nevertheless, estimates now put the pronghorn populace somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million animals.
Besides being a sole survivor with a DNA match closer to the giraffe than any other animal, the pronghorn has the ability to burst into a 55 mph-plus sprint and trot at 30 mph for miles on end. This track-star character trait likely evolved as a survival trait to escape the now extinct, fleet-pawed American cheetah.
Like the American cowboy, the pronghorn continues a resilient existence across the West. Hunting regulations control annual freezer take, but a host of other elements cause local populations to bounce up and down like grade-school kids on a backyard trampoline.
Fire suppression has caused a change in habitat structure, as has livestock grazing. Energy exploration has placed mechanical disruptions throughout pronghorn country and scattered human development, from front-range vacation homes to man camps for oil, all challenge pronghorn way of life.
Not only have humans left an impossible-to-ignore footprint, but the end of free-range livestock meant the beginning of the end for easy pronghorn passage. Today barbed barriers create an effective blockade for migration from snow-heavy areas to more moderate climates. In prehistoric times it was theorized pronghorns simply walked away from brutal winter weather either on their own or in the paths plowed by herds of bison. Fences make that walk much more difficult, if not impossible as pronghorns rarely jump a fence like whitetails. If they can’t find a gap to get between or under the wires, it could box them in and seal their fate to a brutal winter death.
All is not doom and gloom. Once nearly decimated, today pronghorn populations are estimated to be near 1 million animals in good years and 700,000 when herds stumble. No state ranks higher in pronghorn density than my home state of Wyoming. Years of drought proved difficult for pronghorns from the 1990s to 2007, but with more frequent rains pronghorns rebounded and even doubled in some units. With a population in the neighborhood of 500,000 animals, Wyoming has no contenders for the nation’s title of “Pronghorn Capital.” Another benefit of hunting the Cowboy State is the fact that it is 50 percent publicly owned and includes nearly 18 million whopping acres of Bureau of Land Management access.
And don’t forget trophy potential. Although New Mexico and Arizona often get ranked as top trophy pronghorn locales, during its 125th anniversary celebration in 2012 the Boone and Crockett Club noted Wyoming’s Carbon County as the top county in the country for entries from a single species with 282 pronghorns making the B&C trophy book.
Some trophy units are hard to draw, especially in the southwest corner of the state, but if you want to hunt pronghorns you can apply for a top tag and, if unlucky, you’ll still likely pick up a leftover to get the job done. Doe and fawn tags ensure your cooler goes home packed to the brim with prime pronghorn cuts.
Montana ranks second as a pronghorn hunting destination, but a devastating winter in 2011 and drought in 2012 have made a full recovery slow and painful. Fortunately, spring rains in 2013 arrived in time for a summer bloom that should boost fawn recruitment and put Montana on the road to a strong recovery. Traditional hunting hotspots include most of eastern Montana, but with this being the hardest hit region you may want to look at isolated densities in southwest and central Montana.
Like Wyoming, Montana has abundant public lands with nearly 40 percent of the state in public ownership and 8 million acres of BLM land. National forest and state trust lands offer additional access, and don’t overlook the state’s Block Management Program with an average of more than 1 million acres each year open to additional access.
Third place is often a tie for pronghorn honors between South Dakota and Colorado. At buzzer time Colorado is the winner. The winter and drought that affected Montana also crossed the border into neighboring South Dakota. The Rushmore State manages for approximately 55,000 pronghorns, but that objective plummeted to 34,000 animals in 2011 and is slowly coming back with the help of hunter management and, most importantly, Mother Nature.
Colorado may be a preferred elk destination, but its pronghorn population certainly is nothing to ignore, east or west. Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimated the 2012 herd at 80,000, with large pockets of pronghorns located in the northwest and southwest corners. Scattered herds exist outside the interior mountain ranges, but sprinkled public lands create obstacles to formulate a sound DIY hunt. In the northwest corner, where the trophy density is highest, a patchwork of BLM land can often provide the stepping stones for a successful hunt. In the southwest, consider the Comanche National Grasslands. Unlimited archery opportunities are found on the eastern plains, but most Colorado pronghorn hunts require accruing several years of preference points. It’s worth the wait.
You also can hunt pronghorns in other Western locales, but a scarcity of tags means you need to be patient and plan. New Mexico, Arizona and Texas put whoppers in the trophy book every year, but with low densities tags are limited. North Dakota recently closed its season due to a depressed and non-improving population estimated at a mere 3,600 animals. Other states like Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Nebraska, Kansas, California and Oregon offer pronghorn opportunities, but snoop first. States like Kansas have resident-only hunting for centerfire and muzzleloader, though archery permits are unlimited and are sold over the counter.
DIY Options Galore
As noted in previous sections, some states have public-land holdings exceeding 40 percent or more of their total land base. The BLM manages the most prosperous pronghorn territory. Much of the arid West was turned over to this agency when it was deemed by government in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century that some land should be held in public trust. The largest holdings in the continental United States reside in Nevada with 48 million acres, but most Western state BLM tallies are measured in millions of acres.
The same is true of the U.S. Forest Service. Idaho comes in strong with 38 percent of the state made up of national forest. Of course, in both cases you have to aggressively scout and note habitat makeup. National Grasslands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service and provide ideal habitat for pronghorns. Low-elevation foothills also contribute to pronghorn environments with mixed sagebrush interspersed with pockets of junipers and pines. Thick forests rarely attract pronghorns except in pass-through circumstances.