By Nick Simonson
To the west of Underwood, N.D., my cousin and I cruised with the rising sun lighting the blacktop pavement of Highway 200 toward the boat launch at Government Bay. It was the final stretch of the trip, and we sped along with the hopes of grabbing a lower-tier parking spot at the popular destination for anglers from the central stretch of the state seeking the salmon stocked in Lake Sakakawea. With my coffee having run its course and my bladder at capacity, I pushed the truck a bit faster and watched the miles per gallon dip by a tenth as I felt the engine pull on the old Lund in tow behind us.
Up in the distance, a general merging of the blonde wheat field on the right side of the road through the green ditch grasses snaked its way up the embankment and suddenly onto the blacktop. Breaking from my white-line hypnosis, I squinted against the lit sides of something standing in my lane and tapped the brakes, despite all urgency to get the boat in the water and settle up biologically with my habit of chugging early-morning coffee, I slowed down and clicked the red triangle on the dash and pulled over. There in the ditch, a tiny intersection corner well stocked with alfalfa, clover and field grass, were fifteen pronghorn going about their breakfast with little care for the thirty feet of truck and boat that had suddenly veered off to observe them in the morning light. On the perpendicular gravel road, another car was pulled over and its driver watched the herd munch away on the greenery as I began bouncing from one set of does and fawns to the other in the viewfinder on my camera.
This year, two units have been reopened to pronghorn hunting in North Dakota, as populations have rebounded since difficult winters knocked their numbers back several years ago; and the jump of approximately 300 licenses over last year reflects the increase in herd sizes nearing management goals. However, what remains of the state’s population of pronghorn – a creature that can cruise open prairie at a pace of more than 35 miles an hour and can sprint at nearly 60 miles per hour over a half mile – is a small fraction of what it once was.
Much like the bison, the endless herds of pronghorn which stretched from western Minnesota and Iowa on south to Texas and Mexico and into eastern California and Oregon, suffered significant population declines due to overhunting and exploitation during the settlement of the west. Habitat fragmentation, fencing, and landscape changes placed further pressure on their numbers until at one point in the 1920s, the national population was estimated at a mere 13,000. Through the creation of large tracts of public reserve land through federal edicts in the 1930s, stretches were set aside via the efforts of many conservation groups to help pronghorn return from the brink. With more than a million pronghorn estimated to roam the core of their ancient territory today, it appears the ungulates which survived their most challenging natural predator, have also survived humanity.
The pronghorn, often referred to as an antelope, bears no relation to those species found in Africa. However, much like them, its great speed evolved from avoiding a feline predator similar to the cheetah which once roamed the plains and flatlands of North America. Not only able to outrun the now-extinct cat, it appears the pronghorn was also able to outlast it and faces no other predator that can match its speed in an open stretch of land, laying claim to the title of fastest land mammal in North America. Curious and seemingly trusting in nature at times when they encounter people or unknown objects such as tractors or cars, individually or as a herd they can spook quickly and bound off, white-trimmed rumps bouncing along until they disappear over a small rise or down into a draw.
With the woosh of a set of truck-and-boat combinations passing my vehicle, the herd of pronghorn in the corner field paid little attention to the uptick in launch-bound traffic, as they continued feeding calmly. The vehicles served as my reminder that time was of the essence, and while the herd showed little sign of taking off, I knew it was time for us to go as I capped my camera lens, clicked off the hazard lights and put the truck in drive making all due haste to the boat launch and picking things up to a more noted pronghorn-like pace toward our destination…in our outdoors.