Our pronghorn, Antilocapra americana, is not related to any other game animal on our continent or the globe for that matter. He evolved right here, on our North American Plains, and roamed here when the last dinosaurs did, as well as giant cheetahs and huge sabre - toothed cats.
We also call him antelope, and that’s okay too. The first explorers dubbed him that, because they thought he resembled the Old World antelopes. But he’s better - faster to be sure, the fastest animal on earth for any distance. Top pronghorn speeds range from estimates of 45 to 65 miles per hour. I believe in the upper end of that range, for short bursts, and know that a pronghorn can run at a 35 to 45 mph clip almost forever. (For comparison, 30 mph is top whitetail speed.) The only things that limit the distance pronghorns can run are the fences we have added to the West.
Why are pronghorns so fast, faster by far than any of today’s predators? Because pronghorns evolved out there with those huge and speedy but now - extinct cats. Pronghorns persisted and have lost at most only a notch or two of speed in the evolutionary blink of time since.
A mature buck weighs anywhere from 100 to 140 pounds on the hoof. A good buck in a good area will probably be 110 to 130 pounds. Does average a bit smaller - maybe 100 pounds or a little less.
Pronghorns browse for their forage - like deer - and are not grazers (grass eaters). Feeding studies show that little grass is consumed except early in spring, at first green - up. This explains why pronghorns are most numerous in sage country (where shrubs and forbs dominate the diet), and less common in pure grassland or cropland habitat. But antelope love a good green field of alfalfa, winter wheat or other agricultural crops when available; any green, succulent food is relished. Pronghorn habitat is relatively high altitude (4,000 to 6,000 feet or even a little more) and usually considered a desert, with only 8 to 15 inches of precipitation a year.
Pronghorn hair is hollow - a perfect insulator against the winter cold, wind and snow. To cool him on a hot summer day, a special set of muscles just below the skin allow an antelope to ruffle this hair so the summer breezes can blow through and cool his skin.
The rump hair is long - 3 to 5 inches - and bright white. An alarmed pronghorn will flair this beacon, and it is visible for miles as a warning to other pronghorns ... and yes, to you, as if to say, “give it up!”
The objects of hunters’ affections - those handsome horns - actually shed every year. A buck’s black horn sheath comes off every November, and the new horn grows over the next winter and early summer. The horns are not hair, but a keratin - like substance, much like your fingernails. In a late season you might shoot a pronghorn buck and one or both horns will pop off when he falls!
The horns are ready for use by September, when bucks battle during the rut. Bucks prefer to defend a territory and breed the does within it. But where human activity, hunting pressure or fragmented habitat keeps herds on the move, a buck will gather a harem and stay on the move with it, defending against all comers his right to breed does. This is a lot more work than patrolling and defending a territory.
Antelope fawns (often twins, on good range) are born in early June, and can run fast enough to escape predators only a couple days later. But coyotes can devastate young fawn populations - efficiently ferreting out the youngest hiders as a doe tries to feign an injury to lure the predator away.
Pronghorn vision is extraordinary and has been likened to 8X binoculars. Plus, bulging eyes let an antelope see literally behind himself except for a very narrow cone right behind the head. Those eyes catch every bit of movement out there on the prairie - everything. Pronghorn hearing is wonderful too, and so is their sense of smell. Although you might not need to wear a scent - lock suit while pronghorn hunting, you’re foolish to hunt or stalk with the wind, or ignore it in any other hunting situation.
Pronghorns are curious animals. Sometimes you can get by with a mistake or two while hunting, because they’ll wonder what’s up and hang around or even come closer to you to see what’s going on. But more often they’re just spooky and nervous, not likely to wait around if you let them see, smell or hear you. All you’ll see are those big white rumps bouncing a big, bright goodbye.