A harsh winter in the north makes the southern Rocky Mountain States look appealing to antelope hunters this year. (July 2007)
Continued drought and a frigid winter in some states will put a dent in hunter-success rates this year. But overall, pronghorn hunting in the Rocky Mountain States should be good.
Photo by Tony Mandile.
Native Americans called the pronghorn antelope the "wind spirit" because of its speed and ability to disappear quickly. But George Ord, a 19th-century zoologist, provided the pronghorn's official Latin name, Antiopara americana, which literally translates into "American goat antelope." In reality, though, the pronghorn is unique -- a one-of-a-kind species found only in North America.
About 1 million speed goats currently roam the Western plains, with the bulk of them living in Montana and Wyoming. Although several other Rocky Mountain States have good numbers, they provide excellent hunting.
Compared to the more glamorous species like elk and mule deer, the pronghorn offers a relatively inexpensive, yet exciting hunt. The permit costs are generally reasonable, and hiring a guide for a public-land hunt is not necessary.
Any hunting unit that offers permits will have habitat where the pronghorns hang out. So if a hunter does his homework, the chances of seeing a legal buck are high. In fact, few hunters will go through a season without seeing a shootable buck, and they normally see many.
Obviously, seeing a buck is no guarantee to filling your tag. A successful hunt involves some skill, a bit of luck and plenty of patience.
With few exceptions, a buck with 14-inch horns is a decent trophy. A pronghorn's ear is 6 to 7 inches high. So horns that are twice as long as the ears, without the arc or the curl on the tips, will measure 12 to 14 inches, and the curve will add a minimum of 3 or 4 inches to the length.
For the most part, hunters must draw permits to hunt on public land in every Rocky Mountain State, and getting one can be tough. In fact, some guys apply for years and never draw. Some special cooperative programs with landowners, such as Ranching For Wildlife in Colorado, do offer draw permits on private property. And others, such as New Mexico, merely dole out permits to the landowners to sell as they please.
A single outfitter will often grab the latter type and sell guided hunts for that specific piece of land. A permit here is a sure thing for the hunter who can afford it.
Because of the sheer number of antelope, Wyoming and Montana lead the way among the Rocky Mountain States in annual harvests, but both Arizona and New Mexico, despite smaller populations, yield outstanding record-book heads each year. No doubt, the milder climates and tightly controlled hunting allow more bucks to grow older.
That said, any of the following states could produce an outstanding buck if you do some homework.
The pronghorn population in the Grand Canyon State is small compared to other states. But what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Nearly every year, a hunter kills a trophy that goes into the Top 10 in one of the record books.
The biggest detriment to Arizona's antelope has been the lack of sufficient rainfall over the last decade. Plus development has resulted in a loss of habitat. Overall, however, the numbers have remained fairly stable.
For 2007, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission authorized 969 permits. Last year, more than 6,000 hunters applied for one of 55 permits in Unit 7 alone. It's easy to see the drawing odds aren't real good. In fact, there's less than a 1 percent chance of drawing a tag for nearly every hunt unit.
One change made this year was moving the application deadline for the antelope permit drawing from mid-June to mid-February. The way it had been, the results came out just a few weeks prior to the actual hunts, leaving folks little time to make arrangements.
Those lucky enough to draw a permit can expect good-to-excellent hunting regardless of the hunt unit, because any unit with permits is good. Units 17B, 19A, 19B and 20A in the central part of the state near Prescott, and areas around Flagstaff such as Anderson Mesa in Unit 5B or the backside of the San Francisco Peaks in Unit 7, should again be productive.
Getting a rifle permit for a public-land hunt in Colorado is easier than it is in Arizona, and the landowner voucher program also offers another alternative to hunt private land by paying a fee to the landowner or in some cases, an outfitter.
In 2006, 11,445 rifle, bow and muzzleloader hunters killed 7,300 pronghorns across the state, for a 64 percent harvest rate. That included 4,081 bucks and 2,992 does.
Another special program in Colorado is the Ranching For Wildlife permit, which requires a drawing but allows the holders to hunt on private land not otherwise available to the public. These hunters produced an 86 percent success rate in 2006.
Public-land rifle hunters weren't far behind them, with an 85 percent success rate. Muzzleloaders scored at a 39 percent pace, and bowhunters came in at 15 percent.
Although Idaho has some of the best and most varied hunting in the West, it's not known for its antelope hunting. If you live there and get a tag, however, the chances of killing an antelope are decent. In 2005, in fact, it was 65 percent; The 1,550 hunters who held controlled-hunt permits tagged 1,001 antelope -- a figure slightly down from the average of 1,300 of the past few years.
The highest success rate in 2005, at 96 percent, was in Unit 30 where 27 out of 28 hunters killed their antelope. The next-best unit was 39, with a 92 percent rate and a harvest of 23 out of 25.
Predictions for the 2007 seasons are about the same, with 1,505 controlled hunt permits available in the annual lottery.
In 2005, about 58,000 permit-holders killed 27,500 antelope of both sexes, for an overall success rate of 47 percent. The either-sex non-resident success rate for any weapon was 72 percent, while the resident rate for the same permits was 48 percent. Nonresident and resident bowhunters enjoyed success rates of 40 and 13 percent, respectively.
The pronghorn population had done well over the last few years because of successive mild winters, but the 2006-07 winter was pa
rticularly harsh and could affect the hunting this fall.
The top-producing areas are the 700 districts in Region 7, which encompasses the southeast part of the state. There are 13,000 permits for this area, and the success rate usually hovers around 75 percent. The districts around Helena should also be good for trophy bucks.
There are many acres of private land in Montana where permits are easier to get, but they often require paying a trespass fee or hiring an outfitter to gain access.
In 2006, the bad news in Nevada was the wildfire that destroyed more than half of the critical antelope winter range in management units 061, 062, 064, 071 and 073 to the north and west of Elko.
Biologists at the Nevada Department of Wildlife concluded that the burned winter habitat, which had also been degraded by an Aroga moth infestation, was not sufficient to sustain the 1,000-plus antelope in the area. Thus, they initiated a special depredation hunt to cull 200 animals and also began relocating up to 350 of them to other parts of the state.
The good news is the pronghorn population, estimated at 20,000 in the rest of the Silver State, is doing well, and nearly every unit should produce decent hunting.
Some of the best units for pronghorn numbers are 031 to 035, 041 and 042. But if you want to take an above-average trophy, units 011, 012 to 014, 021, 022 and 033 north of Reno are the ones to apply for.
In 2006, 2,580 rifle and archery hunters killed 1,735 antelope, for an overall success rate of 68 percent.
Like Arizona, New Mexico has a much smaller pronghorn population than do the states to the north. But the overall health of the herd results in outstanding trophies.
The biggest controlling factor is moisture. In areas that have received good rainfall over the past couple of years, such as in the southwest quadrant of the state, herds have remained stable or have had fair increases in numbers. Game units 12 and 13 consistently provide decent hunting and high success rates.
The northwest portion of the state has fewer antelope, but the success rates generally run 90 percent or more. Units 39 and 43 are the top producers.
The population in the southeast part of the state has done well. In fact, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish recently trapped pronghorn in the Roswell area, where the animals had been causing depredation and nuisance complaints. The agency used drop-nets to capture antelope on private property and then released them in southeast New Mexico on specific ranches that have public land within their boundaries. The selected ranches contain excellent antelope habitat and should provide additional hunter opportunity in the future. The releases of antelope on the ranches also could result in new herds.
Similar operations near Roswell took place in the past. Those antelope were relocated to Bureau of Land Management lands on Fort Stanton near Capitan to supplement an existing herd.
The better units in the southeast are 24, 25, 34, 36, and 37 and 38. In the northeast, units 41, 45, 46, 47, 54, 55, 56 and 58 are good choices.
For 2007, the game department issued a total of 1,648 permits for the public-land hunts, but many of those were set aside for mobility-impaired, muzzleloader, archery or special youth hunts. So drawing a rifle permit in the Land of Enchantment is difficult. Many private ranches scattered throughout the state take advantage of the special landowner tags available to them and either sell them directly to hunters for a set fee or to outfitters who conduct guided hunts on those ranches.
Due to drought, Utah's antelope herds haven't done much more than hold their own over the last decade. Most herds are stable or under population objectives.
In an effort to boost populations in the north, northeast and central portions of the state, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources began an extensive relocation program a couple of years ago. The agency has captured animals from the Parker Unit and moved them to the San Rafael, Escalante National Monument and the Book Cliffs areas.
The Plateau Unit in the south-central part of the state is an outstanding area for both numbers and decent bucks. There were 247 permits issued in 2005 for two different hunts, and 233 hunters tagged their animal. One hunt produced a 100 percent success rate, while the other came in at 95 percent. Bowhunters in the Plateau Unit also had a good season with 31 of 45 archers sticking an antelope.
Statewide in 2005, 141 bowhunters killed 71 pronghorns, and 803 hunters with any-weapon permits tagged 737 'lopes for a 92 percent success rate. For 2007, the game commission authorized 843 any-weapon permits.
As they did in Montana, the antelope herds in Wyoming went through a severe winter that could impact the fall hunting in certain areas. Overall, however, the herds are in decent shape because of the less severe winters of the prior three years and some increased precipitation, which helped fawn recruitment.
Yet even at its worst, Wyoming continues to produce big numbers. In 2005 the statewide harvest for both residents and nonresidents fell just short of 40,000, which comes close to the total harvest from all the other Rocky Mountain States. During the last 10 years, the lowest harvest of 26,834 took place in 2001.
At one time, 45 percent of all Boone & Crockett Club antelope came out of Wyoming with about 33 percent of them from Carbon County. The Red Desert area is one of the best, but it's also a difficult tag to draw. Areas 61 and 62 near Rawlins hold some pretty good heads. Some areas north of Casper have also produced decent trophies in recent years.
Wyoming is another state with lots of private land, and many ranchers will allow hunters on their property for a trespass fee. Contact the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to help you locate these landowners.
The Web sites of each agency below shows the latest available regulations, licenses, tags info, access maps, applications, harvest reports and other valuable information for planning a hunt.
Arizona Game and Fish Department, 2221 West Greenway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85023-4399. Visit www.azgfd.gov/h_f/hunting.shtml, or call (602) 942-3000.
Tags $85.50; non-residents, $485.
Colorado Division of Wildlife, 6060 Broadway, Denver, CO 80216. Call (303) 297-1192, or visit wild-life.state.co.us/Hunting/BigGame.
Tags $31; non-residents, $301.
Idaho Fish and Game Department, P.O. Box 25, Boise, ID 83707. Go on the Web to fishandgame.idaho.gov/cms/hun or call (208) 334-3700.
Tags $31.25; non-residents, $266.25.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 1420 East Sixth Avenue, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620. Phone (406) 444-2535, or log on to fwp.mt.gov/hunting/default.html.
Tags $19; non-residents, $205.
Nevada Department of Wildlife, 1100 Valley Road, Reno, NV 89512; Phone (775) 688-1500, or visit www.ndow.org/hunt.
Tags $60; non-residents, $300.
New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 1 Wildlife Way, Santa Fe, NM 87507. Log on to www.wildlife.state.nm.us, or phone (505) 476-8000.
Tags $59; non-residents, $276.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 1594 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84116. Log on to www.wildlife.utah.gov/hunting, or phone (801) 538-4700.
Tags $50; non-residents, $228.
Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 5400 Bishop Boulevard, Cheyenne, WY 82006. Log on to gf.state.wy.us/wildlife/hunting, or call (307) 777-4600.
Tags $31; non-residents, $238.
Find more about Rocky Mountain fishing and hunting at RMgameandfish.com.