Tundra Swans, Yellowstone

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Antilocapra americana

One of the rarer animals that I have ever seen in our country is the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), a species of artiodactyl mammal native to our continent. People call the pronghorn an antelope but it is in reality not related to the antelope but its own distinct species. Once there were 12 species of antilocaprid on our continent, it is now the lone survivor. Years ago I can recall large herds of them running faster than our car on trips through rural Wyoming but I hadn't seen any for over twenty years until our recent trip to Yellowstone.  I took this not so adequate shot of three pronghorn up in a remote area near the Hayden Valley on my most recent trip. Someday hopefully I will be able to afford a super long lens.

Pronghorn are very fast, the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere. Some reports have clocked them at 54 mph, it can sustain a higher top speed than a cheetah. (Its ancient enemy was the now extinct american cheetah.) The pronghorn is very fast but a poor jumper and the species have been gravely impacted by barbed wire fencing.

Pronghorns were first discovered by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which noted their existence in South Dakota. Their range extends from southern Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada south through the United States (southwestern Minnesota and central Texas west to coastal southern California and northern Baja California Sur, to Sonora and San Luis PotosĂ­ in northern Mexico.

There is a subspecies known as the Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis) which occurs in Arizona and Mexico.Other subspecies include the Mexican pronghorn (A. a. mexicana), the Oregon pronghorn (A. a. oregona), and the critically endangered Baja California Pronghorn (A. a. peninsularis).

New Mexico Pronghorn © Kenneth Ray Seals


Cabrillo and Ferrelo's route to the new world, 1542
The reason I bring this up is that I read in the San Diego Reader a few weeks back that the Spanish explorer Cabrillo noted them in San Diego, roaming Kearney Mesa no less. This blew my mind, pronghorn, Kearney Mesa? Who had ever heard of such a thing? Antelopes springing their way around the chaparral clad plateaus of Surf City? Could it be true? I believe that it probably is, after doing a little bit of research.

“If you look at the last 30 years, 40 years, urbanization has increased dramatically,” he says. “San Diego County is extremely biodiverse. We live among up to 80 species of mammals that occurred or are occurring here. We also have many that are extinct. For example, we had pronghorn [antelope] that Cabrillo’s naturalists had noted on Kearny Mesa [in 1542] when they came off the ship. But [the pronghorn] are long gone, long extirpated. Kumeyaay, Spanish settlers, we Americans — all of us are to blame.”

I had never heard this factoid before and decided to explore a little bit myself.  I found a website snippet that said that the last native pronghorn sighting in San Diego county was at Carrizo Gorge in 1922. Evidently a herd was reintroduced in the 1980's.

Last grizzly bear killed in SD was 1906 at San Onofre Creek. Last pronghorn sighting in the County was 1922 at Carrizo Gorge in Borrego. side note: Last Jaguar killed in California was 1860 at Palm Springs.

I also found this survey published in 1925, Nelson, E. W. 1925. Status of the pronghorned antelope, 1922-1924. USDA Bull. 1346:1-64.

In his statewide compilation, Nelson reported a census of 1070 pronghorn in California. Most of these animals (980) were in the northeastern part of the state, but a herd of about 30 was also reported as being present in 1922 between Granite Wells and Randsburg in the Mohave Desert, with another band of 11 in Antelope Valley along the Kern-Los Angeles County line. He also reported, but did not map, a band of 13 as having been seen in 1924 between Willow Springs and Liebre Ranch on the west side of Antelope Valley in Kern County. Two bands totaling 29 head were also reported from the San Joaquin Valley between Mendota and Panache Creeks in Fresno County. Another small band of 5 animals was also reported as occurring in 1922 on the "Colorado Desert" along the Imperial--San Diego County border near Campo.

Nelson's informants estimated about 200 pronghorn on the east side of BC from the California border to the boundary of what is now BCS. Another 100 to 300 animals were thought to be in the Vizcaino Desert in BCS between Vizcaino and Ballenas bays.

Newberry, J. S., M.D. 1855. Report upon the zoology of the route. No. 2, Chap. 1, pp. 70-71 In H. L. Abbot. 1857. Reports of explorations and surveys to ascertain ... etc. U.S. Senate ex. Doc. No 78, Vol. 7, Washington D.C.

Page 71: "Though found in nearly all parts of the territory of the United States west of the Mississippi, it [Antilocapra Americana] is probably most numerous in the valley of the San Joaquin, California. There it is found in herds literally of thousands; and though it is much reduced in numbers by the war which is incessantly and remorselessly waged upon it, it is still so common that its flesh is cheaper and more abundant in the markets of the Californian cities than that of any other animal. On nearly every day's march between the valley of the Sacramento and the Columbia, we saw either the antelope itself or its peculiar track in the sand."

"In the Sacramento Valley they have become rare, and the few still remaining are excessively wild."

North, A. W. 1907. Hunting the bighorn. Sunset Magazine. Oct.:523-532.

I also found this document co written by a woman at the U.S, Department of Fish and Game that takes a rather pessimistic view of the Pronghorns' survival in our state.

          JIM D. YOAKUM, Western Wildlife, P.O. Box 369, Verdi, NV 89439-0369, USA
ALICE J. KOCH, California Department of Fish and Game, P. O. Box 216, Templeton, CA 93465,USA
ABSTRACT: Recent assessment of pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) translocations and urban development projects has revived interest in the legacy of pronghorn in California. These issues are of increased public concern, especially development projects that impact scarce native grassland – habitat for the few remaining herds in southern California. Therefore, the scientific and popular literature for pronghorn in California was investigated with an objective of making this data readily available for concerned sources. More than 125 reports from 1769 (Bolton 1927, Crisby 2003) to 2009 were located. Although pronghorn were historically abundant in California, few remain today, and these are predominantly located on northeastern rangelands. The impact of insidious civilization developments appears deleterious to herds experiencing perilously low numbers south of San Francisco. The plight of these wild herds is apparently tied to the perpetuation of native grassland abundant with forbs. There is concern that if pronghorn are to remain a heritage on southern rangelands of the “Golden State,” that native grasslands need to be perpetuated in healthy condition – then it may be feasible to perpetuate native pronghorn populations.
I still haven't uncovered a substantiation of the Kearney Mesa claim. Sauer's 1975 book Sixteenth century North America: the land and the people as seen by the Europeans, University of California Press does mention Cabrillo seeing them in Mexico.

I kept digging and found this 2006 survey Bulletin (Southern California Academy of Sciences) Publisher: Southern California Academy of Sciences Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Southern California Academy of Sciences ISSN: 0038-3872 which historically put the pronghorn even closer to my home in Fallbrook, up in Perris up the road:

Stephens, F. 1906. California mammals. West Coast Publishing Co., San Diego, CA.
"In 1877 I saw a band of about 2 dozen where Perris, Riverside County, now stands, and the next year I saw one within the limits of what is now the city of Riverside. At this writing they are almost exterminated in this State. There are a very few in Modoc, Lassen and Mono Counties, and a small band or two in the deserts in the southeastern part of the State. All told there may be two or three hundred left and this number is steadily diminishing."
Stephens, F. 1921. An annotated list of the mammals of San Diego County, California. Trans. San Diego Soc. Nat. History 3:41-56.
Stephens reports the presence of four pronghorn at Carrizo Creek in the Anza Borrego Desert "many years ago."
Van Dyke, T. S. 1888. The city and county of San Diego. The Pacific Press, Oakland and San Francisco.
Van Dyke, T. S. 1905. Sport on the Lower Colorado. Western Field 6:3-7.
Van Dyke reports pronghorn in El Cajon and Otay Mesa in San Diego County, the last one being killed in 1883.
Priestly, H. I. 1937. A historical, political, and natural description of California by Pedro Fages, soldier of Spain. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley. 83 pp.
In 1769, while Fages was traveling with the Portola expedition through the San Diego area, he reports observing "deer, antelope, conies, hares without number, wildcats, wolves, some bears, coyotes and squirrels of three kinds."
Singer, Dan. J. 1916?. Desert trails. Field and Stream. Sept. 413-416, Oct. 503-506, Nov. 588-590, Dec. 678-681.
Not seen. This article may describe a hunt with E. W. Funcke and the collecting of Singer's pronghorn in the U.S. National Museum (Table 1).
Slade, C. B. 1902. Hunting sheep and antelope in Lower California. Outing 39 (Feb):505-512.
Slade kills a buck pronghorn out of a group of 3 on Mesa Huatamote (due east of El Rosario) between the "Stone Corral" near San Juan de Dios (Espinosa's Ranch) and La Tinaja. The antelope was near a dead juniper and on a high mesa 25 miles north of the "Plains of San Agustine" (Llanos San Agustin) 20 miles from the coast. His party had left from San Quintin.
I guess that I can count myself as lucky for having seen this wonderful creature. Who knows, in a few more generations, there might not be any left anywhere at all.


Ken Seals said...

What a stupendous amount of research! I'm really impressed. I have a special fondness for pronghorn (yes, I know not to call them antelope) since I first saw them in New Mexico and Colorado in the early sixties.
Thanks for such an informative piece. Until I finished your complete story, I was ready to grab my camera and find the San Diego pronghorn.

Blue Heron said...

There is supposedly a reintroduced herd at Carrizo Gorge. We could go look for them. Pretty awesome area, famous trail through railroad tunnel.