The Way of the Pronghorn
I’ve spent the last two years on and off in the Finnish and Norwegian arctic learning about traditional reindeer husbandry and how a changing climate, governmental regulations, and new technologies have affected long-distance migrations and herder-animal dynamics. Imagine my delight upon finding a similar vein here in northeastern California – the annual pronghorn migration and its own unfortunate difficulties. As someone interested in the concept of psychogeography (how one’s physical environment influences identity; the intersection between psychology and geography) and story-telling, movement as a concept is something that I find myself drawn to time and time again. The act of returning to places, of growing into a home... they mean different things to different people. Some are lucky enough for it to come more naturally, while others seek that feeling their whole lives. Not to mention that when examined from an ecological perspective, movement has a wonderfully complicated relationship with everything from learned behavior to the land and its other occupants.
Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra Americana), native to North America, are iconic to the grasslands in the west and known for being the fastest land mammals in the region. Their horns are actually a cross between horns (made of compressed keratin that grow from a bony core and are never shed) and antlers (made of bone, shed yearly) – pronghorn horns are made of keratin but shed yearly. One of our planet’s most stunning yet imperiled natural phenomena is long-distance migration, the aggregate of which occurs in or adjacent to the Greater Yellowstone region in areas of low human density in the US. About 75% of migration routes for pronghorn have already been lost. Many factors are at play, from accelerated leasing of public lands to energy development to a dire need of national migration corridors so the animals will not disturbed when the animals make their annual 550km trek along historic, exceptionally narrow routes that have existed for an estimated 5,800 years.
Although popular prey to the hunting community, there is not too much known about specific survival and reproduction rates. We do know that pronghorn annually migrate from the Upper Green River Valley in Wyoming north to around Jackson Hole along the Gros Ventre valley. This “Path of the Pronghorn” is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors left in North America, and has been repeated for nearly 6,000 years. Research has shown how free-roaming horses frequently prevent water acquisition by pronghorn in Nevada. Pronghorn and mule deer also used water sources less often where horse activity was high. There has been a decrease in native wildlife species richness and diversity in areas of free roaming-horse watering holes. Native wildlife also visit and spend less time at water sources used by free-roaming horses, indicating that horses further constrain access to a limited resource (Hall et al. 2016).
Technology is amazing in how it allows us a glimpse into realities that are not own. The real power lies in our subjectivity; we are at liberty to choose what we believe in. But photos, narratives, or even videos are still limiting in scope. It is not a substitute for being in a place, for living there. For seeing all aspects of damage done, but having satisfaction in knowing that we are collectively working hard to make things work out.
The future of wild horses on American soil is a narrative that has been rapidly, wholly polarized – just as most environmental issues are around the world. One is either for whaling or against it, for predator conservation or against them, care about wild horses or want them to die. The selective lens of the media, coupled with the radical voices who speak out with some combination of passion and duty, make it seem as if a middle ground does not exist. In the spirit of appreciating nuance and working toward coexistence, I urge our dear readers to strip aside any preconceived notions so as to be unburdened when assessing ecological facts. I hope to spend time collecting honest narratives that illustrate the many facets of livelihoods that are and continue to be affected by the presence of horses on our land. Let’s not let social media consume our capacity to listen and understand. Let’s harness it to further our understanding and appreciation for one another.
In semi-arid ecosystems like Modoc County, horses may cause additional stress on native wildlife such as pronghorn through competition for water. Pronghorn antelope are native to California and are drawn to wide-open habitats – their historic range included the Central Valley, southern, and northeastern areas, but habitat loss has restricted them to small, isolated populations in the Central Valley and northeastern corner, right around Modoc County.
At the core of it all, we want to build communities. Extremities in any direction (i.e. overcompensating for personal weaknesses) tend to point to deeper discomforts that have manifested in a fear of listening to opposing ideas for fear that they may make some sense, after all. It’s impossible to live a cruelty-free life. The term itself is an oxymoron, as life (in some ways) is suffering. By no means should anyone exploit pain, distress, or hardship, but perhaps a balanced view of how death is a part of life and makes everything worth living for will make it easier to understand how sacrifices add up. We must appreciate the magnitude of compromise. The crossroads of choosing livelihoods over life itself is an ugly one, but when such situations arise from physical limitations on land, we want to arrive at a solution that works for as many parties as possible.
A couple of days ago, I was out for a run near where I live by the alkaline lakes over the Warner Mountains. A couple of pronghorns – one male, one female – led the way up the road. They would look back every so often, concerned about how Iwas going their way. Eventually, the male bounded over a neighboring fence while the female snuck her way under it, and that was that. I made a mental note to send a video of “pronghorns bounding” to my friends at some point. It’s a movement that is so cute it seems cartoonish, not something one would easily believe it until one sees it. -kc
“Institute for Wildlife Studies.” Pronghorn, www.iws.org/species_pronghorn.html.
“Wild Places.” WCS North America, northamerica.wcs.org/Wild-Places/Yellowstone-and-Northern-Rockies/Pronghorn-Field-Program/Pronghorn-Migration-Path.aspx.
Hall, Lucas K., et al. “Feral Horses Influence Both Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Water Use by Native Ungulates in a Semi‐Arid Environment - Hall - 2018 - Ecosphere - Wiley Online Library.” Ecosphere, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 29 Jan. 2018, esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ecs2.2096.
Gooch, Amy M.J., et al. “The Impact of Feral Horses on Pronghorn Behavior at Water Sources.” Journal of Arid Environments, Academic Press, 12 Dec. 2016, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X.
Hall, Lucas K., et al. “Influence of Exotic Horses on the Use of Water by Communities of Native Wildlife in a Semi-Arid Environment.” Journal of Arid Environments, Academic Press, 30 Nov. 2015, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X.
“Pronghorn.” San Diego Zoo Global Animals and Plants, animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/pronghorn.
Berger, Joel. “The Last Mile: How to Sustain Long‐Distance Migration in Mammals - BERGER - 2004 - Conservation Biology - Wiley Online Library.” Conservation Biology, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 19 Mar. 2004, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x.