Intermountain Pronghorn Outlook

Many areas remain drier than pronghorns demand, but Ma Nature has cracked open the spigot and some manner of recovery is beginning to materialize. Pray for rain and pass the ammo.

Photo by Mark S. Werner

By Daniel D. Lamoreux

For some time now it has sounded like a broken record all across the American west: Drought persists like a nagging winter cold, and wildlife are suffering because of it. Despite technological advancements and our tiring of this song and dance, wildlife managers still cannot make it rain at will.

The good news is that there's light at the end of the tunnel, and this one doesn't look like yet another train. The cycle of lower-than-normal precipitation seems to be coming undone in some areas of the West, which bodes well for the future, and particularly for pronghorn.

While there are still other issues that need to be addressed, it appears as though this fall will offer good potential for those pronghorn hunters willing to put in some effort. Here's the outlook for our intermountain region.

ARIZONA

"We are below our strategic population objectives, probably around 5 percent, and this is primarily in response to long-term drought," explained Brian Wakeling, big-game supervisor for Arizona Game and Fish. "But there are other factors at work. In Arizona in particular the habitat that is best for antelope also seems to be best for urbanization. That habitat is being developed."

Nonetheless, Wakeling is cautiously optimistic about this season.

"We've had a good winter, and last year we experienced an increase in recruitment," he said. "We are still turning out pretty high-quality bucks through our harvests because our seasons are managed conservatively."

Areas that are showing better recovery include Unit 10, where Wakeling indicated populations are doing reasonably well. He also said that Anderson Mesa is showing a little bit of an upswing.

"The northeast part of the state is also doing well. It's nothing tremendous, but there is a little bit of improvement," Wakeling explained. "There are two units where we are probably going to close some portion of harvest this year to give the populations a break. Those are 12A and 12B north of the Grand Canyon. Other areas of concern include 34B in the southern part of the state and Unit 21 north of Phoenix. Unit 21 is not in really bad condition yet, but we have concerns about forage availability."

Improved prospects in the future are certainly on the agenda as a large number of agencies, private organizations and individuals are working aggressively on habitat projects and long-term scientific studies to bolster pronghorn populations in the Grand Canyon State.

The Web site for Arizona Game and Fish can be accessed at www.gf.state.az.us/, and it contains regulations, applications, draw results, hunting unit reports and other information valuable for planning a hunt. You may also call their main office at (602) 942-3000.

COLORADO

Tyler Baskfield, public information specialist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, brought forth a common message: "Things are down statewide due to persistent drought. We see greater fluctuations in antelope than with other game because they don't fawn well without proper conditions."

While he indicated that populations in the northwest are still in decline, the good news is that "antelope have a tendency to recover as quickly as they go down. It's mostly a weather situation."

Baskfield indicated they are seeing minimal recovery in some local mountain park areas. These pockets are seeing less impact from weather conditions experienced elsewhere, and pronghorn populations are reacting accordingly.

"If I were hunting I'd look outside the trendy big-buck areas," Baskfield explained. "If you look beyond the traditional big antelope places you just might come away successful." Three particular areas that he mentioned include South Park, North Park and the San Luis Valley.

"This is going to be a tough year for antelope hunters, especially for trophy hunters," Baskfield said. "But if ever there was a time to be researching hard and putting your (preference) points to good use, it is now." The basic concept is sound. Go on the Web site, look at success rates, explore some of those pockets - and think outside the box.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife Web site can be accessed at http://wildlife.state.co.us/hunt/, where you may find applications, regulations, draw results, harvest stats, preference point stats, hunting reports, maps and other resources. DOW headquarters can also be called by dialing (303) 297-1192.

IDAHO

Idahoans who pursued pronghorn in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw antelope harvests that were more than double the numbers experienced in recent years. Those days are probably never to be revisited again for several reasons. Primary among them is the very real conflict that exists between wildlife and agricultural interests.

"In the '80s we had extremely high population numbers, but depredation was a serious problem," said Brad Compton, the state big-game manager. Pronghorn populations had to be scaled back. The decreased numbers of antelope, of course, brought with them a general reduction in available permits over the last 10 years, but populations have been relatively stable since then.

There were 1,325 pronghorns tagged in the 2000 season and 1,350 taken in each of the following two years. The foreseeable future promises to produce very little change. Those who draw tags in the Gem State face good odds for success. The hunter success rate traditionally averages 70 percent or more.

Like every other place on the planet, the available groceries help determine the size of the critter. "Some of our larger pronghorn are found in the Salmon region as well as in the Magic Valley region," Compton explained, "because there is more productive habitat and, therefore, better horn growth."

The Web site for Idaho Fish and Game is located at http://www2.state.id.us/fishgame/ and contains information on regulations, licenses, access maps and more. You may also contact their headquarters office at (208) 334-3700.

MONTANA

The 2002 season results showed that some 30,730 pronghorn hunters went afield, and 22,355 of them filled 27,441 tags - some had more than one permit - for an overall hunter success rate of 72.7 percent statewide. Of those an

imals killed, 60 percent were bucks.

The final statistics on the 2003 season will not be available for a while, but Ron Aasheim of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said it's likely last year's results were even better.

"We had good numbers and also more quality bucks for size," he said. "We can attribute that to good early moisture last year that allowed early horn growth. We've also had some mild winters that allowed for older bucks with better horns."

"Herds were in great shape before this (last winter) season," Aasheim said. However, there is some concern that winter may have exacted a nasty toll on antelope. "The smaller the ungulate, the more susceptible they are to the weather," explained Aasheim. "Our pronghorn populations have bounced back very well, but until we get final numbers on winter kill and fawn recruitment, we have concerns."

Those areas of greatest worry include northeast Montana where winter started in November and simply wouldn't give up. Central Montana saw similar conditions. "There was a lot of snow and drifting, more like the old days, with real severe temperatures," Aasheim said.

Despite concerns, Aasheim indicated that pronghorn populations have done well in the past and should provide great opportunities for the foreseeable future. His best recommendation is to check regional offices for specific information about localized herd health and hunting conditions.

Historically, Region 7 has produced the greatest numbers of antelope. This area gave up just over 37 percent of the harvest in 2002. Region 5 came in second with 27 percent, followed by Region 4 (16), Region 6 (11) and Region 3 (8). Region 2 only produced 13 animals in that year.

The Web site for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is located at www.fwp.state.mt.us/, where you can find license applications, regulations, draw statistics, harvest reports and other useful trip planning information. You may also contact state headquarters by calling (406) 444-2535.

NEVADA

Chris Healy of the Nevada Department of Wildlife indicated that antelope herds are doing well. "We have been very active in moving antelope into eastern and northeastern Nevada," Healy said. "We have had mild winters for the better part of a decade, and that has allowed herds to grow. Like all other big-game species in Nevada (except mule deer), we are seeing expansion of the resource."

The last three years for which data is available, 2000 through 2002, indeed show a relatively stable number of tags issued and success rates. The average number of licenses issued for all seasons was 1,569, with 2002 showing growth to 1,640. The average harvest over three years was 1,114, with 2002 also showing a better performance at 1,126. All in all, sportsmen found success about 71 percent of the time.

The 2002 resident Hunt 2151-Any Legal Weapon is the most productive with 918 out of 1,171 hunters filling their tags for a success rate of 78.3 percent. Success was not substantially different in the resident Hunt 2181-Any Legal Weapon, as 85 out of 110 hunters added meat to the freezer for a success rate of 77.2 percent.

Resident archers didn't do badly, either, as 71 tags were filled out of a potential 286. Their success rate came in at 24.8 percent. Non-resident bowmen apparently had a bit more incentive, as their success rate topped out at 40 percent.

The non-resident Hunt 2251-Any Legal Weapon was comparable to resident success as 48 of 63 sportsmen bagged pronghorns for a rate of 76.1 percent. Healy indicated that the number of tags issued and the resultant success rates should not vary substantially this season.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife Web site can be accessed at http://ndow.org/, and you will find applications, regulations, draw results, harvest stats, hunter information sheets, links to guides and other helpful information there. You may also contact their main office at (775) 688-1500.

NEW MEXICO

The Land of Enchantment has experienced some of the same difficulties with its pronghorn populations seen most everywhere across the West - a lack of sufficient moisture has had an impact. However, New Mexico has also seen some relief that is beginning to produce improvements in some areas of the state.

"Overall we have fairly stable populations with some variations due to drought conditions," said Barry Hale, the deer and pronghorn biologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. "The eastern side of the state, and particularly the northeast portion, has seen some precipitation, and we have pretty high populations there. The southwest and west-central areas have experienced greater impact from drought conditions, which has resulted in fewer permits in those areas."

This last winter didn't produce the moisture that would have been preferred, but antelope numbers and hunter success are not anticipated to change significantly.

Results from the 2002-03 season showed 2,437 antelope having been taken with rifles, 113 with muzzleloaders and an additional 194 through the use of bow and arrow. Sportsmen can expect a similar quantity of meat for the larder this fall.

The main office of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish can be called at 1-800-862-9310. You may also find applications, unit maps, drawing odds and other information at their Web site at www.gmfsh.state.nm.us/.

UTAH

News out of the Beehive State could be better. Jim Karpowitz, big-game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, indicated that antelope populations are not doing well.

"We have had two years of extreme drought, and overall herds are down," he explained. "Some higher-elevation herds are doing better, but generally statewide populations are down."

Karpowitz said that just over 300 any-weapon permits will probably be issued with roughly an additional 60 being allocated for archery hunts. "Pronghorn are impacted (by drought) more than any other game species," he said. "You can expect fewer hunting opportunities until the drought breaks."

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources can be called at (801) 538-4700, or visit their Web site at www.wildlife.utah.gov/, where you can find applications, regulations, draw results and big game statistics and annual reports.

WYOMING

There are no general licenses issued for antelope in Wyoming. The program in this state calls for all areas to be managed in a limited-quota fashion, an approach that has created relatively consistent success year after year.

"This allows us to adjust the number of tags we issue with respect to the resource that is out there," said Jeff Obrecht, public information officer for Wyoming Game & Fish. "Generally we find that the hunters who don't kill an antelope

are those who hunt on public land and either they didn't try very hard, or they didn't find the (trophy) animal that they wanted." If you secure a tag, the worst hurdle is behind you.

Statistics back up that assessment. Total statewide hunter success runs at about 91 percent, with non-residents generally doing a few percentage points better.

While more recent antelope harvests have not quite reached those of the banner years remembered a decade ago and before, the last five years have shown an average take of roughly 30,000 animals. No matter how you slice it, that represents a lot of hunting enjoyment.

For a good many years now, the key word used when describing pronghorn prospects has been drought. While it remains inappropriate to say that moisture is no longer a concern in the Equality State, last season provided some light at the end of that tunnel.

"Wyoming experienced a perceivable improvement in horn length and mass during the 2003 season," Obrecht explained. "We had improved spring moisture, which provided better nutrition during the main growth period for horns."

This benefit has not been uniform across the state, as the western portions were not significantly improved and the east slope of the Continental Divide still is in need of a habitat boost, but the Cheyenne area in particular has seen some relief over the last several years.

Aside from factors associated with weather, Obrecht commented that the Red Desert region in southwest and south-central Wyoming continues to hold a great reputation. "Despite the fact that the numbers of antelope and the corresponding licenses have been down, this is a very sought-after region," he said.

Reputation aside, hunters should realize that other opportunities exist. "Populations are good in the eastern part of the state," Obrecht said. "And we're not selling all available licenses." This underutilized resource deserves greater consideration.

The population in this region is not an issue so much as is the question of access. "Hunters in the east simply need to understand that there may be incidental costs," he explained, "for either an outfitter or for trespass fees."

One other point that Obrecht highlighted was the fact that doe/fawn licenses are not getting the attention they deserve. "Don't discount the fun of doe hunts," he said. While these opportunities may not offer the reward of a magnificent head on the wall, they are no less enjoyable and provide the perfect chance to learn a new area for future trophy hunting while providing meat for the freezer.

The bottom line is that game is available for those willing to ante up.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department Customer Service Center can be called at (307) 777-4600, or visit their Web site at http://gf.state.wy.us/, where you can find application forms and information, license draw results, regulations, draw odds, harvest reports and much more.



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