COLORADO SPRINGS — The herd grazing on dried winter grass in a field of patchy snow began to rustle. One by one, the pronghorn scanned the horizon, a suburban scene of layered rooftops, two women walking their dogs, and a new, stone elementary school.
Then they bolted, a river of tan and white bounding through drifts of snow and streaming across a street, stopping traffic in both directions.
The 30 or so antelope — the bucks with the horns and black cheek patches, the does sticking close to their fawns — settled down again in another patch of open space across the road, a plowed dirt field that won’t stay empty much longer. Billboards stuck in the ground advertise what is coming soon: “homes from the $300,000s.”
The robust population of Colorado pronghorn is a game management success story. The antelope that numbered only around 5,000 in the 1940s now total more than 85,000 statewide. They’ve increased by 20,000 just since 2004.
The exotic, almost gazelle-like animal with a white rump and white belly, the only animal in the world to shed horns every year as if they were antlers, is thriving. But what happens as their rangeland is gobbled up for new subdivisions, as cities spill further into the open space?
Nowhere is the conflict more evident than Colorado Springs, where the city continues to extend farther north and east. Herds graze on buffalo grass between subdivisions and sleep in small valleys dotted with yucca near the airport.
The regional office of Colorado Parks and Wildlife gets calls regularly from worried residents who say the pronghorn are trapped by fence line — pronghorn can jump, but they don’t like to, preferring instead to crawl under fences.
Some are hit by cars, especially along a stretch of U.S. 24 heading east toward Falcon. A buck was standing in the median recently at the airport entrance. There are letters to the editor sent to the local newspaper about how development is destroying their habitat and trapping them in the city. Could city planners keep a corridor open so the antelope could migrate, they ask?
Wildlife managers respond to homeowners and developers with a repeated request: raise the fences. Either remove or raise the bottom rung so the animals have an easier time crawling under, and don’t use barbed wire, they tell them.
It’s not uncommon to see the hair on their backs ripped off, thanks to barbed wire. Wildlife managers mark fences with brightly colored tape to show pronghorn where they can easily crawl under, and the animals remember the spot.
Pronghorn “have become pretty habituated to traffic,” and wildlife officers are monitoring them as development progresses, said Brian Dreher, a senior wildlife biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Colorado Springs office.
The animals are not “trapped,” despite how it looks, Dreher said. Pronghorn can migrate for miles — and they will, if they run out of food. Wildlife biologists know this because they’ve tracked the animals by radio collar, determining at least a couple of herds winter near the Pueblo-El Paso county line but summer near the El Paso-Douglas county line.
“They are not going to stand in the field and starve,” said Bill Vogrin, public information officer for the southeast region of the wildlife department.
Colorado’s pronghorn herds migrated mostly from Utah and Wyoming, with a bit of help from hungry miners and other hearty dwellers in the 1930s and 40s.
In the winter of 1936, pronghorn crossed the frozen Yampa River from Wyoming into Moffat County in far northwestern Colorado. Wildlife managers laid down a fence to let them in, and then put it back up to keep them, according to an account in the “Colorado’s Wildlife Story,” a book by the Division of Wildlife.
In the following years, wildlife managers began transplanting the antelope to other parts of Colorado.
The first “live antelope trapping” event came in 1941, when officers captured 72 pronghorn that winter by herding them into a corral and using a net. At first, officials boxed the animals individually for travel, but the antelope froze to death, according to the book. They learned then to transport them like cattle, herded into a covered truck and driven far from the Wyoming border.
The most recent antelope trap and relocation took place in 2010, when wildlife managers brought animals from southeastern Colorado to the Gunnison Basin because a particularly harsh winter in 2006-2007 had killed off many antelope there. Some of the animals were transplanted near Grand Junction to bulk up the population in Mesa County.
A helicopter herded the animals into a funnel-shaped fence line, narrowing to a trap that looked like a circus tent made of net. The animals were sedated to calm them and herded onto trucks, which carried them, as in years past, to new prairies.
From a fixed-wing airplane last year, wildlife managers counted 21,350 antelope statewide, which they estimate is about one-fourth of the state’s population based on prior aerial surveys of wildlife. Speaking into a recorder, Dreher and other wildlife officials called them out as they saw them so they could tally the day’s total later: “doe, doe, buck, fawn, fawn …”
“It’s a pretty remarkable story of recovery,” Dreher said. “It’s cool to think that not that many years ago, we almost had none. The paradigm shift that’s happening now is, how do we deal with too many?”
Besides hunters, other pronghorn predators are coyotes and golden eagles, who can swoop down and pick up a fawn. In rare cases, a mountain lion will kill a pronghorn, but that’s unusual because lions typically stay within the cover of the forest while pronghorn prefer the open prairie. Their main survival skill is running fast, which works better in open country.
The state manages their population through hunting, and Colorado gave out 26,500 licenses to hunt pronghorn in 2018. More than 11,000 pronghorn were harvested in 2017, the latest year that number was available.
“We’ve made a lot of happy hunters and a lot of full freezers,” said Dreher, who got his own antelope in Wyoming last season and turned it into sausage and whose office walls hold the mounted heads of moose, mountain goat and elk.
He is fascinated by the pronghorn, describing how the animal has hollow hair shafts for better insulation and how its rump of white hair flares up to signal danger. From a wildlife division Jeep with the windows down last week, Dreher demonstrated the buzzing sound pronghorn make through their nose to warn the others, inadvertently spooking nearby pronghorn.
Also, Dreher explains, “antelope” is a slang term for pronghorn, since actual antelope live only in Africa.
Lovena Kiser is among the Colorado Springs residents who have repeatedly called parks and wildlife concerned about the pronghorn. “I’m pretty sure I’m in somebody’s record as the ‘crazy antelope woman,’” she said. “But I can’t with good conscience see them wiped out.”
Kiser lives on the northeast side of Colorado Springs, near the Black Forest and in a home her family has owned since 1962. When she was a girl, the herds of pronghorn that grazed in the fields around her and migrated by moonlight were much larger, numbering in the hundreds instead of the 20s and 30s like today, she said.
The subdivisions popping up around her 11 acres were once working ranches, including the old Wolf Ranch, which is now parceled off for homes. Kiser watched in horror the summer before last, when a pronghorn herd sprung into panic after they were spooked by her dogs. The animals frantically paced the fence line, then leaped across and onto the pavement of Black Forest Road, stopping traffic and sliding on their slick hooves.
On another day, she watched a doe give birth to twin fawns not 40 feet from the road.
“We used to be out in the country,” she said from her home, just across the road from the city limits. “As the development started taking hold, their natural migratory path was literally cut off. They used to use the full moon as a gathering call.”
Kiser wishes developers could leave a migratory corridor to make it easier for the antelope to go east. “I know the city has no place to go but north and east, I understand that,” she said. “But it’s at the cost to the wildlife. The foxes are gone. The raccoons are gones. The skunks are gone. Honestly, even the field mice are gone.”
The wildlife division’s Vogrin notes it’s the the same conflict that intensifies every year across Colorado — with wildlife, forest fires and nature in general as human development stretches into forests and animal habitat. The people who lived there first want to shut the door behind them, to leave some prairie left for the wildlife.
“It’s the story of Colorado,” he said.
More from The Colorado Sun
- Colorado Springs’ downtown creek has long been viewed as a blight. Then one man started catching trout in it.
- How to close the technology gender gap? A Colorado-launched effort starts with making sure stories don’t go untold
- Illegal voting conviction in small Colorado town that prompted call for federal investigation is overturned
- Democratic voters are not fully tuned in to the 2020 presidential race, poll shows
- Sunriser: Trespassing at Columbine rising / PERA’s brutal year / Rural Colorado & the census / Talking wolves in a parking lot near you / + more