One of the comforts to be drawn from making a familiar trip is the landmarks along the way that help mark the time. I suspect families who make frequent visits to visit relatives, vacation homes or hunting leases can tell when their journey is nearing an end by the familiar sights they see, as easily as they can by the odometer on their vehicle.
There are other landmarks that do not necessarily serve to mark time and place, as much as they do to provide a sense of being there. We have been traveling to northern New Mexico each year for more than two decades. There are several towns along the route we use to help us gauge the time we are making, as well as the time remaining ahead. However, there is one sure sign we are near our destination. Depending on the season, it may occur sooner than at other times, but when we start seeing the white rumps of pronghorn antelope poking out of the seemingly endless sea of sage, we know we are getting close. We enjoy watching wildlife, and it is a particular pleasure when the experience is with wildlife not common to our area.
I read an article about a five-year study under way in western Wyoming that reminded me of a particular pronghorn sighting we encountered near Eagle Nest Lake. Normally, the pronghorn we see are in small groups scattered across the range grazing. It was late afternoon and a storm appeared to be coming in. A buck was rounding up a herd of about 20 pronghorns and had them running at full speed into the nearby foothills. What a truly inspiring sight.
The article said the pronghorn is the Western Hemisphere’s fastest land mammal. They can reach speeds of 60 mph and can turn on a dime. They have a herd mentality that helps them keep safer in a crowd. When viewed from the sky, their synchronized steps resemble that of schools of fish - all moving in unison.
The study under way in Wyoming is an attempt to gather data on the migration of the pronghorn. The upper Green River basin is the winter range for several thousand pronghorn. For centuries they have traveled with the seasons; in the winter they inhabit the sage-swept lowlands where there is less snow and the foraging is easier. In the spring they head north to the uplands where the lush meadows provide sustenance until the aspen leaves turn color and drop, and they make the return journey. According to the article, it is recognized as the longest migration of land mammals in the lower 48 states - 270 miles roundtrip.
The migration route is in jeopardy from private land subdivisions.
In the last decade, encouraged by rising energy prices and a pro-development administration in Washington, nearly 3,500 wells were sunk in the traditional winter habitat of the pronghorn. More than 75 percent of the 1.2 million acres of federal land in Wyoming is under lease for oil or gas extraction. The wildlife researchers are trying to determine the exact routes the pronghorn take from the Grand Teton Mountains to the winter range. In December, the team net-captured and put radio-collars on 50 pronghorn.
The collars track the animals by satellite and are timed to pop off and fall away from the pronghorns’ necks the last week in October, wherever the animals are standing or running at the time. Using GPS (global positioning system), the research team hikes or cross-country skis to round up the collars. This is the third year into the study, and finding the collars takes from five to 10 days.
The team is trying to find a solution that would help the pronghorn in the midst of the development under way. They are proposing a new kind of wildlife refuge - it would be the nation’s first national migration corridor. It is designed to be 90 miles long and a mile wide and protect those animals that must hoof it for tens of miles, including mule deer and elk. They are encouraged by the fact that 92 percent of the corridor would run through federal lands.
This effort is not in response to an imminent threat to the 100-pound antelope like animals. There are an estimated 800,000 pronghorn on North America’s grasslands. The national migration corridor is an attempt to establish a new compromise between private development, energy exploration and wildlife that would work. It would also help keep pronghorn in Grand Teton National Park.
Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@