Native to North American grasslands, pronghorn antelope are rather interesting-looking deer-sized ungulates with large horns. These antelope can be found in parts of the Pacific Northwest, particularly the sagelands and prairies of eastern Washington and Oregon; but thanks to threats like habitat fragmentation and overhunting, extirpation of the species happened across the inland Northwest by the late 19th century. Thanks to the work led by indigenous communities, particularly the Colville Confederated Tribes in southeast Washington, the population of pronghorn in the Pacific Northwest has slowly been growing over the last decade.
Pronghorn are relatively small in statute, especially compared to other North American ungulates, and will often stand 2.5-3 feet tall at the shoulder, measure 3-5 feet from head to tail, and weigh 75-150 pounds. They also have long, thin legs with only two digits on each foot and their coats are tan with white bellies and a few white spots/bands under the neck. Their iconic horns are short, pronged, and distinctive in shape. Males will typically have the large black horns, which consist of a permanent, boney core surrounded by a keratin sheath. Female pronghorn do, on occasion, have horns but they tend to be small bumps. Their diets primarily consist of forbs like clovers and wild onion but include shrubs like sagebrush and fresh grasses in the springtime.
As the fastest ungulates in North America, pronghorn are able to run 50 miles an hour, which is why European settlers gave them the nickname of “speed goats”. Despite both their name and nickname, pronghorn are neither antelope nor goats. They are the only species left in their zoological family, Antilocapridae, and their closest living relative is actually the giraffe. While these animals are fast, pronghorn are not able to easily jump over fences like other ungulates. That, in turn, can limit their access to appropriate habitat because of agricultural related fencing in and around prairies and shrub-steppe. Organizations like Conservation Northwest are working towards removing unnecessary fencing on public land and replacing barbed wire fences on private land with more wildlife-friendly options that still keep cattle in.
Historically, pronghorn were found in the plains, prairies, and shrub steppe of North America, from Central Washington to Mexico. Their populations dwindled during the 19th century because of hunting and the westward expansion of European Americans, which fragmented and even eliminated parts of their habitat in favor of European agriculture. Today, there are an estimated 25,000 pronghorn living in eastern Oregon while a significantly smaller population has been reintroduced to Washington.
The Colville Confederated Tribes have been leading the reintroduction of pronghorn in Washington and 150 pronghorn were released on the Colville and Yakama reservations between 2016 and 2017. The Colville Tribes Department of Fish & Wildlife has several wildlife biologists on staff but the actual relocation operation involved several organizations and a total of about 50 people. According to the December 2017 Colville Tribes Fish & Wildlife Newsletter, the team included “ a helicopter capture crew, veterinarians from Omaha Zoo, NDOW [Nevada Department of Wildlife], and Utah Department of Natural Resources, wildlife biologists and technicians, and volunteer youth workers from NDOW.”
The efforts to bring pronghorn back to Washington have been a long process but one that seems to be doing well, with an estimated 250 roaming central Washington in 2021. If you do want to see pronghorn in the wild, there are a few places you can try and see some in both Washington and Oregon. Because of the Colville Confederated Tribes’ efforts, many of the pronghorn in Washington can still be primarily found in shrub-steppe habitats on the Yakama Indian Reservation. In Oregon, these ungulates are often found in the High Desert sagebrush and Columbia Plateau of eastern Oregon. One great place in Oregon to try is the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
Like with any wild animal, make sure to keep your distance from the pronghorn you find, as getting too close could stress them out and cause issues like overexertion. Additionally, these animals are much smaller than bison and elk but can still injure a human and can act unpredictably when stressed or cornered.
Have you ever seen pronghorn before? Or did you even know there were populations in the Pacific Northwest? Let me know in the comments!