Vail Daily column: Pronghorns: Speedsters of the Colorado high plains | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Pronghorns: Speedsters of the Colorado high plains

Colorado is home to one of America's fastest land mammals, Antilocapra Americana, better known as the Pronghorn. Pronghorns are often referred to as pronghorn antelope, which is misleading as a pronghorn is not related to the antelope family (much like our state bird, the lark bunting, which is actually a sparrow).

Pronghorn are a unique family of ungulates endemic (native) to North America. These majestic bullets of the plains are identified by their tan bodies, white throat bands and white rump. The giveaway is obviously their unique horns, which harbor a prong-like branch partway up the horn on bucks. Females can also have a short horn, never exceeding ear length. Like most horns, they are made of keratin (like our hair and nails). Unlike most horns, however, pronghorn actually shed the outer keratin sheath annually.

Designed for Speed

Pronghorn resemble antelope and deer because they are ungulates, meaning they walk on their "ungules" or hooves, which are basically their fingernails. Their long legs and hooves allow them to reach unbelievable speeds and prevent them from tripping on rocky terrain. In fact, pronghorns are designed for speed. Within minutes of being born, a baby antelope can begin to walk. By the fifth day of its life, a pronghorn can outrun any Olympic sprinter and have been clocked running up to 60 mph! A proportionately large heart and lungs allow pronghorns to reach great velocities and to sustain them; a pronghorn can run 30 mph for over half a mile! They have even been observed racing one another or even a passing cars for sport.

Pronghorn's Predators

Unfortunately, being built for speed does not make one a great jumper. Pronghorns are lousy leapers. Fences have doomed many by preventing them from migrating to their winter grounds. Barbed wire fences allow them to go through or under. It may cost them some fur, but it is a price they are willing to pay if it means escaping a predator. What could possibly hunt such a swift creature as the pronghorn? Grizzly bears, wolves of the plains, coyotes, bobcats and golden eagles have all been known to catch fawns or old, infirm animals. But the pronghorn's main predator is man. In the early 1900s, they were hunted prolifically by Indians and settlers and nearly went extinct (down to a mere 1,000 in Colorado). Pronghorns are a curious bunch, which makes them relatively easy to hunt. Simply tying a handkerchief to a tree can pique the pronghorn's interest enough to cause an investigation, bringing them in close for a sure kill. In 1925, as America became more environmentally conscious, refuges were built to protect the remaining herds. Populations today are healthy and steady.

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When and where can we see these populations? At the end of August, pronghorn bucks gather a harem and begin establishing territory, thus making September the ideal month for pronghorn watching.

"The combination of cool, invigorating weather with deep-blue autumn skies and dry vegetation is hard to match after a hot, dusty summer," says author and photographer Erwin Bauer.

Pronghorns stick to open spaces where they can run about and browse on delicious sagebrush. The best place locally for spotting pronghorns is the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge just south of Walden in north central Colorado, but they can be viewed throughout the high plains. If you have not seen these shining symbols of environmental awareness and gracefulness, then you are missing out on one of Colorado's great opportunities to view wildlife in its natural habitat.

Kyle Groen is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center from Allegan, Michigan. He leads interpretive hikes and helps with Camp EcoFun at the Vail Nature Center.