by Nancy L. Lewis

It has been estimated that when Europeans first arrived in the New World  in excess of thirty million pronghorns roamed the vast grasslands that extended from Canada to central Mexico. Arizona's share in this wealth of wildlife has been attested to in numerous diary accounts  and reports of early settlers, trappers, and military personnel, as well as in newspaper articles published in the second half of the 19th century. 

Before 1890, the pronghorn, Antilocapra Americana, was probably  Arizona's most common game animal, but settlement took a tremendous toll on that extensive population. Pronghorn numbers began to decline noticeably and in direct proportion to the increase in human  habitation with its associated developments and livestock, particularly the large herds of cattle and flocks of sheep introduced in the 1880s and 1890s. Arizona's rapidly growing population, a result of  the building of railroads, the staking of mining claims, and the settlement of towns created a burgeoning market-hunting industry to supply the demand for fresh meat. Being plentiful, conspicuous, and more available than other wild game, pronghorns became a principal meat source.

The damage to the pronghorn population would not have been so extreme if hunters had killed them merely to supply the market demand. But it didn't stop there. Not only were they shot for food, but also, because they were so numerous, they were used for target practice.  Pronghorns were shot at every opportunity, with no restrictions as to bag limit, season, or sex. Moreover, their movements were drastically curtailed by cattle and sheep fences, which crisscrossed their  range and created traps that hampered their escape from danger. They were living under siege and carried a price on their heads. Even when the animals were not being pursued, the fences made impassable barriers, which spelled the end of the open range. Many pronghorns succumbed to lack of forage, deep snow, and drought, caught in a maze of barbed wire as they followed fence lines for untold miles to oblivion and probably death.

The late 1800s saw various attempts to change the Territorial  Game Code  in order to rescue what remained of the pronghorn herds. Although the pronghorn received legal protection in the early 1900s, the law was rarely enforced and largely ignored. Hunting pronghorns for fun  and profit remained a major pastime. With statehood in 1912 came the new Arizona Game Code, which continued the moratorium on pronghorn hunting, but this law, too, was rarely enforced. To add to the  plight of the pronghorn, people were now using new-fangled machines (motorcycles and automobiles) to harass and hunt them.

During this period, another critical factor influenced the decline of  Arizona's pronghorn herds. The Great War in Europe provided a ready market for as much beef, sheep, and goat meat as producers could supply. In response to this demand, Arizona ranges were stocked at  even higher levels, even though rangelands were already at capacity and suffering from overgrazing. When America entered the war in 1917, the killing of pronghorns and all other big game animals was  carried out in a spirit of patriotic duty, in that by eating wild game meat at home, more livestock could be shipped to feed the troops overseas.

After the war ended, returning soldiers were encouraged to homestead  small ranches in the West, creating numerous rural populations. When the postwar depression struck, pronghorns and other "free" wildlife were the natural food of choice to fill hungry bellies. By 1921,  pronghorn populations hit an all-time low. Estimates indicate that only 11,750 pronghorns remained in the entire United States and Canada, 650 of them in Arizona. The pronghorn was on the brink of extinction.

Alarmed conservationists struggled to stop the decline of the pronghorn. Their efforts focused on improving the enforcement of game laws and convincing ranchers that restocking pronghorns to former habitats would not interfere with livestock grazing; pronghorns  and cattle do not eat the same forage, except in times of dire circumstances, such as drought. Gradually, with the cooperation of ranchers, the control of predators, a decline in livestock grazing  pressure after World War I, and the formation of the Arizona Game Protective Agency, which led to better compliance with state game laws, the pronghorn picture began to brighten. By 1941, their numbers  had grown to several thousand, and the first authorized buck-only hunt was held in Arizona. As the pronghorn populations increased in northern Arizona, animals became available for translocation to  southern Arizona habitats and pronghorn numbers continued to rise.

Recovery was hampered during the 1940s and 1950s by poor precipitation  and, probably, coyote predation. The pronghorn season was once again closed until their numbers increased enough to justify a hunt. The 1960s brought two occurrences which were disastrous for Arizona's  pronghorn herds. The first was man-made. It started then, but continues to be an ongoing threat: the "40-acre ranchette," with the lure of "You can view wildlife right from your very own kitchen window."  These developments quickly escalate from luring the people who love to observe wildlife, to driving the "bait" away because pronghorns cannot exist with the barriers caused by the developments; the  proverbial "Catch 22"! With loss of prime habitat comes loss of pronghorn numbers. Alas, it's just that simple.

The second event, a natural disaster in the form of the winter storm of  1967-68, killed off hundreds of pronghorns in the north, reducing populations to levels that severely handicapped their recovery. Most herds lost half their population, while 85% of the premier Anderson  Mesa herd perished. Fewer than 4,000 pronghorns survived statewide, and recovery from that storm lasted throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Unfortunately, the drought which has held Arizona in its grip for the  last six years has decreased pronghorn numbers to less than 8,000 statewide. To add to their present plight, they confront an ever-increasing number of highways, subdivisions, fences, and other  developments. Because Arizona's human population is burgeoning, more and more prime pronghorn habitat is being lost. As the demand for beef continues to decline, many ranchers, finding it increasingly  difficult to make a living from livestock, are succumbing to the big money offered by developers and selling out. Even though the ranchers who persevere no longer view the pronghorn as competition to  their livestock for forage, thousands of miles of old barbed wire fence, with the last strand lying on or mere inches from the ground,still remain in existence, hampering the pronghorns' freedom of  movement. Brush encroachment is another major threat to their habitat.

Can anything be done to maintain pronghorn herds? Can anything be done  to increase herd numbers? Is there anybody out there who cares enough to make sure this noble animal will always be a part of our Arizona heritage, with numbers great enough to sustain regulated hunts in  the future? The answers are yes, yes, and yes. 

On October 3, 1992, a group of concerned sportsmen and wildlife  conservationists formed an organization known as the Arizona Antelope Foundation. They dedicated themselves to increasing the Arizona pronghorn population by advocating and actively participating in  pronghorn management and habitat improvement programs. In just eight short years, this organization has made a positive impact on the welfare and enhancement of pronghorn herds in Arizona.

Work projects are the Foundation's mainstay, conducted at the rate of  at least four per year. Members combine forces with ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Forest Service, the Arizona Game and Fish  Department, and other wildlife and conservation organizations to improve pronghorn habitat. Many miles of fence have been completely removed by these dedicated volunteers. They have modified hundreds of  additional miles by removing the bottom two barbed wire strands and replacing them with a single smooth wire strand 18 to 24 inches above the ground. This modification allows pronghorns to move easily from one side of a fence to the other in order to escape predators, reach water or forage, and migrate from winter storms. Several projects involved completely removing old fences and erecting new  fences. Other projects include the building or repair of water sources and the removal or burning of encroaching brush.

The Arizona Antelope Foundation works closely with the Arizona Game and  Fish Department to identify potential work projects and coordinate efforts to complete such projects. The Foundation also presents proposals to various task forces in the state consisting of recommendations that specific state lands with pronghorn populations be set aside as critical habitat for wildlife corridors essential to pronghorn survival.

Every August the Foundation conducts a hunters' clinic. This is a very  positive and successful event, which was conceived as a way to ensure that all first-time pronghorn hunters are prepared for such an undertaking. Experts speak on topics such as pronghorn behavior,  trophy judging, hunting tactics, optics, ethics, photographing one's trophy, and care of hide, horns, and meat. Even veteran hunters say the clinics have added to their knowledge of pronghorn hunting,  and all participants leave with information essential to a successful pronghorn hunt.

Through the Arizona Game and Fish Department's special big game permit  program, the Foundation has provided close to half a million dollars for pronghorn habitat improvements and research leading to better pronghorn management. The Foundation has also worked with the  Department on translocation projects wherein pronghorns are returned to historic habitats and moved to replenish existing herds.

The attempt to maintain or increase pronghorn numbers on  ever-diminishing land is an incomparable challenge, but the members and leadership of the Arizona Antelope Foundation are prepared to meet that challenge. Their mission is to cooperate with landowners,  developers, and agencies not only to ensure that this magnificent animal will always remain in Arizona, but also to see that the mistakes and transgressions of the past are never repeated.

The Arizona Antelope Foundation welcomes all who wish to join in the  effort to preserve the pronghorn in Arizona. Regular individual memberships for one calendar year are $40. Family memberships are $60. Sustaining memberships are $100. Life memberships are $1000. To join, contribute, or obtain more  information about this worthwhile organization and the rewarding work it accomplishes, write to: Arizona Antelope Foundation, P.O. Box 12590, Glendale AZ 85318.

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