Returning home; the pronghorn’s journey back to Washington

Returning home; the pronghorn’s journey back to Washington

Conservation Northwest / Mar 26, 2019 / Connecting Habitat, Habitat Restoration, Restoring Wildlife, Sagelands

Efforts are underway to restore pronghorn to Washington’s sagelands, but fences and habitat fragmentation inhibit the recovery of this native species.

By Rose Piccinini, Sagelands Contractor

Over the last 15 years, I’ve made the drive from Eastern Washington to central Nevada many times with my family. One of the highlights has always been getting a glimpse at pronghorn.

A pair of pronghorn antelope in shrub-steppe. Photo: Jennifer Strickland, USFWS

My five-year-old son shares this excitement with me. During the long stretches of flat prairie along the 14-hour drive to Reno, both of us press our noses against the window, searching the horizon and hoping to spot these animals’ white and rusty-brown colors against the rolling expanses of shrub-steppe. Last year we got to see a female walking with her shaky-legged fawn near the road, and that memory has stayed with us both.

I like to think that for my son and his generation, seeing pronghorn will be something that can be done from near our home here in central Washington. Native American nations are reintroducing this species to its native range in our state, and Conservation Northwest is supporting outreach and education about pronghorn while collaborating on fence removals and other programs to improve and connect their habitat on both public and private lands.

The “Connected Backbone” in our Sagelands Heritage Program. Click for our full program map! Graphic: Sonia Hall, SAH Ecological

Our Sagelands Heritage Program (SHP) works to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe landscapes from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills for the good of both wildlife and people.

The main focus of our work is a “Connected Backbone” of important habitat linkages that runs north-south east of the Cascade Mountains (check out our Google Maps flyover video or full program map), including places such as the Tunk Valley, the Waterville Plateau, Moses Coulee, the Colockum, Wenas and other state wildlife areas, and lands on the Colville and Yakama nations. These areas include much of the remaining pronghorn habitat in Washington!

Through this program we’re working with the Colville and Yakama tribes, the state, and other local stakeholders and landowners. Together we’re helping to give pronghorn a warm welcome as they return to their native range in central Washington.

Evolved for the open plains and prairies

Able to run at speeds of close to 60 miles per hour, pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) are the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere, and are similar in appearance to the antelope of the African Savannah. But though they are commonly called pronghorn antelope, even by wildlife officials, they’re not related to true antelope. In fact, their closest relatives are actually the giraffe and okapi.

Individuals typically weigh between 90 and 130 pounds, with males (bucks) exhibiting “pronged” horns that can extend up to 20”. Females (does) have small, spiky horns visible under close scrutiny. Unlike deer and elk, these are considered horns, not antlers, and only an outer “sheath” is shed every spring before being regrown the following summer.

A native of interior North America’s plains, prairies and shrub-steppe, pronghorn historically ranged from around the Columbia River in central Washington state to Mexico. Abundant on the Great Plains and in the rolling country surrounding the Rocky Mountains, pronghorn were likely less numerous on the edges of their range in Washington and southern Canada.

Pronghorn antelope in Wyoming. Through our Sagelands Heritage Program, we’re working to support the restoration of this species by Native American nations, and their recovery on state, federal and private lands in Washington. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Overhunting and habitat fragmentation led to extirpation (local extinction) across the Inland Northwest by the late 1800’s. Small clusters of pronghorn remained in the Rocky Mountains and western Great Plains. Restoration efforts by wildlife agencies, conservation organizations and sportsmen’s groups throughout the 20th century returned the species to relative abundance in states such as Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, the Dakotas, Colorado, and even southeastern Oregon.

Contiguous expanses of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property and other public lands across large portions of these states supported recovery, as did private landowners with sprawling ranches that preserved native grasslands. In Arizona and western Mexico, recovery efforts continue for the Sonoran pronghorn subspecies (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis).

Though the distance varies by herd from just across a valley to more than 150 miles, pronghorn migrate across their range seasonally, often following the same paths for generations. Because they evolved in open landscapes, pronghorn cannot, or do not, jump. Traditional barbed-wire fences present a formidable barrier. Pronghorn try to go under or through them, often getting tangled in the barbed wire, and sometimes dying from starvation. Human development, highways and habitat fragmentation present additional threats to their natural movements in search of food and mates.

Pronghorn return to the landscape

The availability of water in the Columbia Basin sets central Washington apart from much of the pronghorn’s native range in the arid West. Ample water from irrigation projects led to widespread development, orchards and agricultural conversion, resulting in the loss of native shrub-steppe habitat and limited contiguous public lands. This fragmentation of Washington’s remaining sagelands presents a challenge for pronghorn, as well as other species such as sage grouse and pygmy rabbits.

A pygmy rabbit, one of our focus species in the Sagelands Heritage Program. Photo: John Marshall / WDFW

After several unsuccessful attempts by the state to restore pronghorns to Washington in the mid-20th Century, reintroduction efforts revived in 2011 when the Yakama Nation released 99 pronghorn from Nevada onto their reservation. Additional animals were released over later years, including 49 in January 2019. This small but growing Yakama pronghorn population now roams from the reservation southwest of the city of Yakima to Hanford Reach National Monument north of Richland.

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have also instituted a pronghorn reintroduction program, citing the cultural and subsistence importance of the species for member tribes.

52 pronghorn from Nevada were released onto the Colville Reservation in southern Okanogan County in 2016. 98 more were released in October 2017. Both releases included animals fitted with GPS collars to monitor their movements and recovery progress. Though some mortality has occurred, particularly during harsh weather following the first release, tribal biologists note the animals are generally doing well in their new home.

After their release, many of these pronghorn managed to swim south across the Columbia River, and now reside in several small groups ranging mostly private lands in Douglas and Grant counties. These are critical areas for our Sagelands Heritage Program, and pronghorn here are managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in coordination with the Colville Tribes.

Educating landowners about fences, sagelands habitat

By working with staff from the Colville Fish & Wildlife Department, state biologists, and other organizations, Conservation Northwest is helping private landowners in north-central Washington share the land with pronghorn.

Methods include removing unnecessary fences on public lands, and phasing out traditional barbed-wire fences for more wildlife-friendly options that feature a smooth bottom strand at least 18” off the ground. Pronghorn can safely move under these fences, while still keeping cattle inside. Together we’re producing a brochure and other outreach resources with information on coexisting with pronghorns in Washington.

Recently-burned sage-steppe in August 2018 at Gingko State Park near Vantage and the Quilomene Wildlife Area. In Olympia, we’re supporting wildfire response legislation.  Photo: Chase Gunnell

Additionally, we’re advocating for state and federal legislation to support pronghorn habitat, including standing with local ranchers at our state capitol in Olympia in support of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. These trained community associations can provide a responsible first line of defense to fight fires in arid areas, where cheatgrass and other invasive weeds have been increasing fire severity and destroying habitat. We also actively support federal funding for the Conservation Reserve Program to provide farmers and ranchers incentives to retain natural habitat for pronghorn and other species on their working lands.

Throughout our SHP, we’re prioritizing habitat connectivity to ensure Washington’s shrub-steppe species have suitable corridors as they move across this landscape. And we’re actively restoring sagebrush—pronghorn’s main source of food—as well as bitterbrush and other native plants.

We hope our efforts will someday allow pronghorn restoration programs to expand to state and federal wildlife areas in Washington’s shrub-steppe, such as those around Ellensburg where we’ve been improving Green Dot road systems and installing informational kiosks.

Through our Sagelands Heritage Program, we have an exciting opportunity to enhance the landscape for a special species that is returning to Washington state. And it’s a particularly significant project for our indigenous partners, too. Last week, I visited the Colville tribal government building near Nespelem to get some input on how tribal members feel about pronghorn returning to the landscape.

“For our people, the pronghorn was a species of subsistence, along with deer and salmon,” said Patrick Tonasket, Centralized Services Director and member of the San Poil, Lakes and Okanogan Bands. “It’s exciting to think that maybe sometime soon they will be again.”

Amid the loss of habitat and biodiversity as development increases and the climate changes in our region, it’s significant to have the opportunity to bring something back. I’m inspired to know that soon, children will know pronghorn antelope as one of the many incredible animals that live here in Washington state. And I’m hopeful that in a few years, my son and I won’t have to make the long drive to Nevada to catch a glimpse of the graceful pronghorn dashing across the sagelands.

Pronghorn browse on sagebrush and other vegetation in Yellowstone National Park. Such a sight is now possible once again in central Washington sagelands! Photo: Chase Gunnell