GILLETTE, Wyo. — The pronghorn buck looked across a quarter-mile of grass and sagebrush and seemed to smile.
There was ample reason.
Michael King and I crouch-walked in the animal’s direction, binoculars held atop our heads like 6-inch horns, and did our best pronghorn antelope impersonations.
There are easier ruses to pull off. Some shag carpets offer more cover than well-browsed western grassland. And pronghorn have excellent vision.
But we had acquired a goat-like, sagebrush aroma after a few days of crawling around the high plains. And since it was the start of the animals’ mating season and bucks were defending territories, we opted for a proactive hunting strategy.
The buck took a few steps in our direction and bent to thrash and mark a sagebrush with its horns.
We continued our approach; the buck closed the distance, then circled in an attempt to get downwind.
The judgment of males of all species can be compromised in the quest for procreation. But this pronghorn buck retained at least a thread of survival instinct.
At 75 yards — beyond my bow range — it turned and gave us the prairie goat salute. It raised the white hair on its rump and emitted a loud whistle from its lungs.
The buck bounded away, having alerted any other pronghorn in the area that the two upright walkers with funny hats were interlopers.
“Close,” King said with a smile as he lowered his binoculars. “But there are more where that came from.”
Together with King, 48, I traveled with Russ Guerndt, 64, and Ray Clough, 63, for a few days of archery hunting for pronghorn antelope and mule deer in northeastern Wyoming. We hunted a private ranch and public grasslands south of Gillette.
Guerndt first came to the area in 1982 with Carrie “Nip” Narf, a former outdoor writer for the Hartford (Wis.) Times Press.
“We had no idea of how to hunt out here,” Guerndt said. “It was all learning by the seat of the pants.”
Guerndt has returned more than 20 times to bowhunt the area, though this year he opted to serve as camp cook and hunt consultant.
King is an accomplished bowhunter but is better known as the retired Milwaukee Wave forward and all-time leading scorer in indoor professional soccer.
King grew up in England with a keen interest in the outdoors but never hunted until he settled in the U.S. Guerndt and other members of the Hartford Conservation and Gun Club befriended King and took him on his first western hunt.
In 1995, King killed his first big game animal with a bow, a pronghorn, in this area of Wyoming.
“The freedom and openness of the land, and to be able to hunt it, made a big impression on me,” King said. “I was hooked.”
Clough is a retired schoolteacher who grew up in Hartford. Like many Wisconsin outdoorsmen, he dreamed of giving western big-game hunting a try.
The pronghorn is an iconic American wildlife species. Unique to North America, the animal grows horns, not antlers, and has been clocked running more than 50 mph, the fastest land mammal on the continent.
The species was decimated by market hunting, disease and habitat loss in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At one point, biologists estimated its numbers had dwindled from several million to about 20,000 and feared the pronghorn may go extinct.
But with the implementation of modern, scientific wildlife management, protective regulations and funding from hunting license sales and excise taxes on hunting and shooting equipment, pronghorn numbers have recovered well.
Wyoming had an estimated pronghorn population of 527,000 animals in 2010, most of any state. In fact, many management units are more than twice “over goal” and many ranchers invite hunters to help reduce pronghorn numbers and lower grazing pressure on grasslands.
In 2010, Wyoming sold 75,837 antelope licenses, including 46,041 to nonresidents. Last year pronghorn hunters killed 31,653 bucks, 24,527 does and 2,683 fawns, for a total harvest of 58,863.
The license sales provided more than $7 million in revenue to Wyoming wildlife managers. Pronghorn hunters spent more than $25 million in Wyoming, according to state estimates.
Wildlife managers do have concerns for the pronghorn’s future, including declining range quality and loss of habitat from escalating mineral development.
In the high plains of northeastern Wyoming, pronghorn outnumber the humans.
“We used to see more mule deer than we do now, but it looks like the conditions are favoring the antelope,” Guerndt said.
The area is a checkerboard of ranches, public grasslands, coal mines and oil and gas extraction facilities. The elevation (over 4,000 feet) exceeds the population of most towns in the region.
We saw pronghorn on most ranches and along most highways. They also are notorious grazers on the Gillette golf course.
But pursuing them on foot with a bow is far different from viewing them from a vehicle.
The terrain is covered with cactus; the only trees are in creek bottoms. Stalking in these environs can turn hunters into pincushions.
King earned a reputation for durability over a 22-year professional soccer career. But in one notable visit to the training table after his western bowhunt, the Wave staff had to extract a cactus spine from King’s knee.
We hunted in ground blinds near water holes, but the pronghorn were wary of the new bumps on the landscape.
We stalked bucks when a ravine or other feature offered some cover.
We purchased a pronghorn decoy and walked behind it. And we put our binoculars on top of our heads.
Finally, Clough and I filled our tags with a method Guerndt and crew devised years ago. We used a couple pieces of lumber to construct a “tree stand” in a windmill and waited for pronghorn to pass within range.
The handsome bucks weighed about 135 pounds and had thick, black horns about 12 inches long. We gave thanks to the wild, native animals and carefully saved the hides, meat and heads.
We shared a meal of grilled pronghorn tenderloins in camp, mindful of the recovery that led to the current abundance and hopeful careful management will keep the population healthy into the future.
(c)2011 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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