Photo courtesy of Patrick Novak.
Whether you call them pronghorn, antelope or speed goats — to name a few choices — they’re an American original. In the hierarchy of animal species, the pronghorn stand alone. They’re a family of one, neither goat nor antelope . . . and really not all that closely related to either, popular notions to the contrary.
Both sexes have horns, but the female’s horns are rarely longer than two inches. Mature bucks wear horns 12 to 15 inches long, on average, that sport a prominent prong.
Bucks wear a distinctive black cheek patch, muzzle and forehead.
Antelope eat more than 150 species of grasses, forbs and browse. That lets them occupy a variety of areas, such as prairie grasslands, sagebrush desert and lush green alfalfa fields.
To hunt an antelope successfully is to defeat his eyesight. Blessed with eyes set well to the side of its head, the antelope is said to enjoy roughly 280-degree vision. In my book, that’s close enough to the proverbial “eyes in back of the head.” Depending on who’s doing the talking, it’s said that an antelope’s keenness of vision is the equivalent of a human gawking through a 6X or 10X glass.
In many of the Rocky Mountain States, rifle or bowhunters have excellent opportunities to tag an antelope. Here’s a look at what’s going on in each state.
The Grand Canyon State doesn’t have a lot of antelope compared to some of the other nearby states, so there aren’t a lot of tags to be had. But Arizona does produce a high percentage of larger-than-average bucks.
Hunters from all over enter the annual draw. As you might expect, the odds of drawing a coveted tag are not in your favor.
In most hunt areas, the 2006 success rate hovered around 1 percent! The good news? If there are permits and you happen to have lucked out, expect good hunting.
In 2006 (the most recent year for which complete data is available), 489 rifle hunters killed 389 bucks, for a whopping 80 percent success rate!
A total of 101 muzzleloaders killed 67 bucks. That’s a respectable 66 percent success rate.
As for bowhunters, 365 downed 67 bucks, for an 18.4 percent success rate. So as you can see, drawing a tag is the hardest part by far — especially if you hunt with a rifle or muzzleloader.
One big reason Arizona’s antelope grow bigger horns is that mild winters equate to longer lives.
Two Arizona bucks top the Boone and Crockett list: a 17-inch-plus monster killed in 2002 in Mohave County; and an unbelievable 19-inch-plus buck killed in Coconino County two seasons earlier.
Both scored an incredible 95!
Based on 2006 harvest data, hunters in units 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12 and 17 enjoyed success rates in the 90 to 100 percent range. Barring disaster — such as extreme drought, extensive wildfires and other acts of God — biologists see little reason to think this year will be much different.
Colorado has more antelope than Arizona. There are also more permits available, and better odds of drawing one.
The Ranching for Wildlife program is an alternative draw, but lucky hunters get to hunt private lands not available to hunters in the general draw. Private landowner vouchers are also available for a fee.
In 2006, about 11,000 hunters killed about 7,000 antelope, 4,000 bucks and 3,000 does, for an overall 60 percent-plus success rate. About 85 percent of Ranching for Wildlife and public-land rifle hunters were successful. About 40 percent of muzzleloaders and less than 20 percent of bowhunters tagged antelope.
Going into the 2007 season, there were about 73,000 antelope statewide. The biggest herd, about 18,000, is in GMUs 3, 4, 5, 13, 14, 214, 301, and 441, generally northwest of Steamboat Springs in the north-central part the state. The eastern counties hold other hotspots.
Strange as it may seem, antelope are not all that numerous here. Out of 77 hunt units, fewer than half provide hunting opportunities.
All rifle and muzzleloader hunts are controlled-draw hunts, and statewide, just 1,500 or so tags are available in a typical year. Archery hunting is a general tag, however, and hunting is allowed in all open units.
Should you draw a tag, success rates are generally good — running as high as 100 percent in some seasons in some units. The biggest herd, and the largest number of available permits, is in the southwest on the Owyhee country south and west of Boise.
Units 40 and 42 are two very good ones. At the opposite end of the swath of open hunting units, the country bordering southwest Montana — for example, units 29, 30 and 37, around Dubois, Leadore and Challis –harbor decent numbers.
Recently, a friend killed a record-class buck almost within sight of his house in Dubois. By the way, this was a buck he had scouted early in the summer and kept an eye on until the opening.
Montana is second only to Wyoming for numbers of antelope. In 2006, about 35,500 hunters drew tags, including slightly fewer than 2,000 multi-region archery-only tags.
While overall harvest figures are still out, information from check stations indicate that the harvest was pretty much in line with the 10-year average. Assuming a hunter-success rate of slightly less than 50 percent, that would put the overall kill at about 18,000.
As usual, it appears non-residents enjoyed greater success with bows and rifles than did residents.
Region 7, in the southeast, gets the most ink, but there’s good hunting to be had in every region except Region 1, where no permits are issued.
In my experience and from talking to fellow Montana hunters, just about everyone who draws a tag and puts forth the effort gets an antelope.
On average, Montana probably do
esn’t compare to those states where milder winters tend to increase bucks’ longevity and let them grow bigger horns. But trust me, anyone who hunts hard should be able to bag a respectable trophy.
While residents and non-residents must apply, the so-called 900 multi-region tag is an automatic draw — and perhaps the best thing going for bow hunters. It’s about as close to over-the-counter as it gets. The tag allows hunting from Aug. 15 (early archery season) to the close of rifle season in mid-November in every management region except regions 1 and 2. Most districts are either-sex.
In recent years, buying the either-sex tag then allows the hunter to apply for additional doe-fawn tags.
Statewide, many acres are enrolled in the Block Management Program with decent-to-excellent antelope hunting. In addition, millions of acres of public land also provide excellent hunting. Of course, a zillion acres are leased to outfitters — and on another zillion or so, access is by fee only.
Here, resident and non-resident antelope tags are not easy to come by.
For example, in the 2006 buck antelope any-legal-weapon hunts, nearly 11,000 residents applied for only 1,600 tags. The good news is that about 80 percent of the hunters were lucky and brought home a buck.
Meanwhile, non-residents in the same hunt drew just 63 tags against even longer odds. For instance, Unit 11 odds were 21 to 1. Units 21 and 22 were 27 to 1. No one in Las Vegas would tell you to place money on those bets.
But again, the success rate was high — except for Unit 11, where success was at 57 percent. Hunters in the other units enjoyed a 70 to 100 percent success rate.
Resident and non-resident archery tags are a bit easier to come by.
In 2006, 872 residents applied for 472 tags (2 to 1 odds), but the statewide average success rate was just 21 percent. Non-residents who beat 4-to-1 odds drew one of just 46 tags; the statewide average success rate came in at 22 percent.
Last year, archery season ran July 27 through Aug. 16. Rifle season ran Aug. 22 through Sept. 5 (with a couple of late-season exceptions). In both cases, these were the earliest antelope hunts in the Rocky Mountain States.
Biologists report the statewide population at about 20,000. But recent wildfires have put a serious crimp in the habitat.
Especially hard hit was the critical winter range in the northern counties. Last year’s archery season opened with a huge wildfire raging north of Elko, seriously curtailing hunter efforts in that area. Barring yet another disastrous fire season, hunters lucky enough to have drawn a tag should enjoy decent hunting in most units.
The Land of Enchantment doesn’t have the numbers, but there are bucks here that will take your breath away.
As in Arizona, mild winters translate to healthy older bucks. Healthy old bucks almost always sport bigger horns. The B&C record book lists 10 New Mexico bucks — three each from Socorro, Lincoln and Catron counties and one from Grant County.
One was shot in 1986; most were shot since 1996. The No. 4 buck (with a B&C score of 91) fell two seasons ago in Lincoln County.
Some of the better hunting in the south is found in units 12, 13, 24, 25, 34, 36, 37 and 38. In the north, units 41, 45, 46, 47, 54, 55, 56 and 58 are consistent producers.
The hardest part might be drawing a tag. Last season, only 1,650 tags were issued for public land hunts, and of those, a large number went to special hunts like archery, muzzleloader and for youth and the physically impaired.
New Mexico’s tag quotas look like this:
• 78 percent to residents,
• 12 percent to non-residents under contract with an outfitter, and
• 10 percent to non-residents without an outfitter.
Last season, some 14,000 residents drew 1,300 tags, 2,600 non-residents drew 168 tags and 450 guided non-residents drew 157 tags.
There are also private lands tags available for a fee, either through the landowner or a leasing outfitter.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish continues to manage antelope aggressively. The current trap-and-transfer program seems to be working.
Wyoming, the Cowboy State, is far and away No. 1 in the West.
It has the most licenses sold, the most hunter participation, highest harvest, and some of the highest success rates.
This is another state where not all that many antelope roam, and drawing the tag is perhaps the hardest part — especially tough for non-residents.
Unless you’ve amassed a fair number of bonus points, your odds of drawing a tag here are almost nil.
Lucky hunters can expect a successful hunt, however. Rifle-hunter success rates are quite good. In 2005, for example, 1,129 hunters killed 603 bucks and 518 does, for an overall success rate of 99 percent.
Eighty-eight hunters participating in the limited-entry archery hunt killed 59 bucks, and 497 hunters participating in the any-legal weapon limited-entry hunt downed 484 bucks.
Drought and rampant development of prime habitat have combined to render Beehive State antelope herds stable at best, while many are below management objectives and dwindling. Units that continue to produce decent to outstanding results are the south-central limited-entry hunts where year after year, success rates range above 90 percent for rifle hunters and around 50 percent for bowhunters.
Like New Mexico, the Division of Wildlife has recently implemented an aggressive trap-and-transfer program to bolster populations where good habitat exists. The jury is still out, but most sources seem to agree that the outlook is promising.
In 2006, 47,642 hunters killed 45,615 antelope, about 60 percent of which were bucks. The Cowboy State is far and away No. 1 in the West. It has most licenses sold, the most hunter participation, highest harvest and some of the highest success rates.
When comes to antelope hunting, Wyoming wins. Believe it or not, non-residents racked up a 100 percent hunter success rate. No other state comes close.
Rifle hunters accounted for about 95 percent, followed by bowhunters at 4 percent and muzzleloaders at 1 percent.
Obviously, good hunting exists pretty much anywhere tags ar
e issued, but the following places offer perhaps the best hunting: Area 23 (Pumpkin Buttes), Area 17 (Gillette), Area 15 (Clearmont), Area 20 (Upper Powder River), Area 21 (Middle Fork), Area 22 (Crazy Woman), Area 24 (Thunder Basin), Area 25 (Ormsby), Area 26 (Bear Creek), Area 29 (Shawnee), Area 30 (Leprele), Area 32 (Bates Creek), Area 42 (Laramie Plains), Area 45 (West Laramie), Area 47 (Shirley Basin), Area 48 (Leo-Hanna), Area 53 (Baggs) and Area 93 (West Green River).
The downside to hunting antelope here is the large percentage of private land. And unlike Montana, for example, there’s not a lot of free access. Many ranchers will let you on for a fee. Your alternatives to that are to hire an outfitter or be sure to draw a tag in a public area where antelope roam.
My advice would be to find a suitable situation first, then draw the tag.
Find more about Rocky Mountain fishing and hunting at RMgameandfish.com