“In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous”
On my way out to climb White Rock yesterday evening, I saw a beautiful Pronghorn Antelope buck. His coat was so clean it looked like it had been painstakingly curry combed. He was butterscotch tan on his back with a white belly and rump, and a jet black nose and shiny black horns.
As I watched him bound off through the cheat grass across a draw, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer view at these strange looking creatures. Even though they are a common sight in Utah’s West Desert, they are anything but common when you take a closer look.
The Pronghorn Antelope in our desert possess an impressive stat sheet. When I started my research, I was surprised to find these animals have been roaming our West Desert for over 20 million years. They are practically a living link to the Ice Age. They are the sole survivor of an ancient family of species.
It is incredible to think that Cave Bears and Saber Tooth Tigers once preyed upon the same pronghorn antelope that we see today! It is also interesting to note that those predators, plus the woolly mammoth, giant sloths, and other species that roamed this area during the ice age, all succumbed to extinction but not the pronghorns.
How did these amazing creatures survive? For one thing, they aren’t picky eaters. They will feed on sagebrush, weeds, juniper, grasses, and even cacti. They are also perfectly adapted to cope with desert extremes, In fact, author A.R. Royo in his article on the beasts, claims that they can survive temperatures from 130 degrees Fahrenheit to -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another key element to their survival is their keen eyesight. They have large eyes in proportion to their heads—and for good reason. It is said a pronghorn can detect movement five miles away. Kind of makes it difficult for predators to sneak up on them. When alarmed, they contract their muscles and make the white hairs on their rumps stand on end. Other pronghorns can detect this warning from two miles away.
Those incredible capabilities pale in comparison with their number one asset: speed. These animals are built for fast running, with strong legs and padded hooves that absorb shock. It has been claimed the pronghorn can run up to 60 mph, making them the fastest animals in North America, and the second fastest animals on earth. The African Cheetah is faster, but it becomes winded after a short distance. The pronghorn on the other hand can maintain its top speed for three to four minutes, and can comfortably cruise at 30 to 40 mph up to five miles.
How do they do this? They have large lungs and consume three times as much oxygen as other animals their size. When they run, they have their mouths open so they can suck in as much oxygen as possible, kind of like a jet intake. Even with this tremendous speed, they still have some predators today, which are humans, coyote, and golden eagles in that order. Humans take antelope through hunts, and the coyote and eagles take young and weak antelope.
Not many people are aware of the fact that great herds of antelope once roamed the North American continent. Some experts put the figures at 70 million, which would rival the populations of the buffalo.
Antelope herds roamed from Manitoba to Mexico City, but their fate was similar to that of the buffalo. There was a great slaughter of them, and it was said that at one time in Denver, you could buy three entire antelope carcasses for 25 cents. Even though there was a glut of meat on the market, the antelope were still killed and often left to rot on the plains.
In 1999, Lisa Hutchins of the North American Pronghorn Foundation, wrote an article that noted by the 1900s there were only about 10,000 antelope left in North America. Only 60 years earlier there had been 60,000,000. This ghastly slaughter not withstanding, antelope are now one of the success stories in species preservation with their numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Barbed wire was another man-made intrusion that was detrimental to the animal.
Though antelope are extremely fleet footed, for some reason they cannot jump. Many of them are killed every year as they try to negotiate barbed wire fences. I have personally cut an antelope free that was trapped in barbed wire and bleeding. Luckily her legs were not broken and she jumped up and ran away. On another occasion I came across a foal that was not so lucky. Its carcass was hanging on a fence that it failed to clear and must have died a slow death by starvation.
That being said, the antelope in our West Desert seem to be thriving. They are curious, playful animals at times and I have even raced a group of them at 45 mph for miles down a dirt road on the eastern bench of the Snake Range near Mount Moriah.
The best chance to see these animals is to drive south out of Tooele on state Route 36 to state Route 199. Follow this road west over Johnson’s Pass to Dugway Proving Ground. Just before the main gate and on the west side of the LDS Church House, turn left and proceed south. This road will take you through southern Skull Valley to the Pony Express Trail. It is a common thing to see the animals on this stretch. They also frequent the Pony Express Trail between Lookout Pass and Simpson Springs.
Next time you see one of these wonderful creatures, take time to consider all of these things and the fact that they roamed the ancient shores of Lake Bonneville. They were here millions of years before the first humans crossed the Bering Straits and they will probably be here long after any trace of human occupation has disappeared from Tooele County.