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Thomas Janke, a Texas Wildlife Biologist, joked to me about the pronghorn translocation, “It’s pretty much an alien abduction.” “A massive twirling flying machine from a foreign species chases you until they’re directly on top of you. There’s a loud bang and WHAM, your legs are caught up and you can’t run — and running is your only defense. The twirling metal contraption lowers to the earth and an animal that runs on only two legs sprints, tackles you, handcuffs you, and injects you with a drug. Your senses dull as that two legged animal who lacks hair on most of its body wraps you in an unknown substance, ties a rope to it, and signals to the twirling machine. The metal contraption lifts off the ground — it takes you with it. You’re flown to a test station where you’re laid on a table. These animals collect your DNA, take stool samples, and draw your blood. Then, they cart you off to a dark holding facility and before you’re transported to a foreign landscape. Twelve hours later, just as the drugs are wearing off and you’re coming back to your senses, the holding facility doors open into an alien place and those two legged animals quietly mutter, ‘Live Long and Prosper!’”
The West Texas pronghorn population has crashed. In the 1980s, there were approximately 17,000 animals. Drought, habitat fragmentation, and a nasty parasitic worm combined into a lethal concoction that devastated the herd to a 2013 low of only 3,000 animals. The Borderlands Research Institute, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and private landowners have teamed up to revive dwindling populations in West Texas. In the words of Wildlife Biologist Louis Harveson, “We drew a line in the sand not to watch this species diminish on our watch.” In January of 2016, they set out to capture over 100 pronghorn from an abundant herd in the Texas Panhandle and translocate them 500 miles to revive a dwindling herd near Marfa, TX.
The process is simple…in theory. The helicopter pilot flies across the Panhandle plains until he locates a herd. The pilot positions the chopper about 30 feet above the pronghorn, which are now running hell-bent against whatever is coming their way (reminder: they’re the fastest land mammal in North America). When positioning is perfect, the gunner behind the pilot fires from the hip an 8’X8’ net from a pistol like .308. If successful, the pronghorn’s legs get tied up in the net. The chopper lands and the third person, the mugger, tackles the pronghorn, injects it with Haldol (a sedative), and wraps the pronghorn into a special carrying bag. The bag is secured to the helicopter and flown to a nearby processing facility.
Approximately 30 students, vets, and biologists wait for the pronghorn to arrive. As soon as the helicopter places the pronghorn on the ground, teams of two people run out, grab the pronghorn, blindfold the animal, and hurry them to a processing table. There, hair, blood, and fecal samples are taken and carefully recorded. The pronghorns are medicated, given GPS collars, and an ear tag. Overheating is a major concern and students put cool water on the stressed pronghorn’s armpits and belly to help keep their temperatures low. The pronghorn are also offered a drink, which most of them accept. I’m sure they’d prefer a beer, or maybe whatever antelope drink after a long day of running, but time is of the essence. The entire process takes about two minutes before they’re loaded onto a trailer with a padded hay floor for protection. As soon as the trailer is full of pronghorn, the eight-hour drive to the release site in West Texas begins. Upon arrival, trailer doors are opened and the pronghorn, still groggy, step into a whole new world. They have no idea how important they are.
In three days time, 112 pronghorn were successfully netted, processed, and transported to their new home in West Texas to reestablish an iconic species in an epic landscape. There was a 5% mortality rate, the lowest yet for the Texas pronghorn team, and spirits were high. Abundant rainfall has given West Texas a bountiful supply of forage and release conditions are the best in years. But the work is far from done. The students at Sul Ross University have ambitious research projects that will yield crucial data on pronghorn movement, survival rates, forage habits, and that data will hopefully pave the way for more translocations in the future.
Towards the end of the capture, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Louis Harveson, the brainchild behind the Borderlands Research Institute and the spearhead for reintroduction efforts across West Texas. Once I got past the typical biologist statistics and data talk, Dr. Harveson opened up on a personal level about what reintroducing an iconic animal back into its native habitat means for the ecology of that landscape and for society as a whole: “If we bring back the pronghorn, it’s not just the pronghorn that benefit. They’re an umbrella species and habitat for them means habitat for all the reptiles, birds, mammals, and the array of life in the Trans Pecos. And if landowners take pride in their native animals, which they do, then those habitats have a bright future. We’re not just bringing back pronghorn, we’re conserving an ecosystem.”
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Watching dozens of pronghorn step through the trailer lights and into their new home under the moonlit West Texas landscape gave me a feeling I won’t soon forget. It was a feeling of completeness. Like inserting the last piece of a landscape puzzle. We live in a world where conservation success stories are hard to find. To see so much support and collaboration between passionate landowners, non-profits, state, and federal agencies is nothing short of spectacular. Dr. Harveson and his crew have ambitious goals. Bighorn, pronghorn, bison, mountain lions, mule deer, and elk are all making a comeback in Texas. They’re working hard so the glory days of wildlife in West Texas aren’t just a thing of the past.