The Wild West: A Pronghorn's Incredible Journey

September 22, 2010

WCS embarks on a huge study to ensure safer journeys for pronghorn through their migratory corridor in the American West.

The pronghorn, the fastest land animal in North America, has been dashing over the lands between Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park and the Upper Green River Basin for millennia. And thanks to previous conservation efforts by WCS and our partners, this ancient “Path of the Pronghorn” was the first federally protected wildlife migration corridor in the United States.

Still, the journey along this almost 100-mile route isn’t a walk in the park. Even at speeds of up to 65 miles per hour, these antelope can’t always outrun the predators, oil and natural gas development, and other migration obstacles that they encounter. So WCS and government biologists are embarking on a huge study to evaluate how the pronghorn are faring during their seasonal travels.

“Grand Teton National Park’s pronghorn spend half the year outside the boundaries of the national park, and the threats they encounter could influence their long-term viability,” said Steve Cain, a senior wildlife biologist for the park. “The data collected in this study will provide public and private land managers with information critical for making decisions that enhance conservation of this herd, outside of the park as well as inside.”

In the early 1800s, around 35 million pronghorn roamed the West. Today, just 700,000 remain. Wyoming is home to most of them, but many also live in Idaho.

“Globally, most national parks are not large enough to protect ecological phenomena such as migration. Demonstrating the ability to maintain this process in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and in Grand Teton National Park can be a model for other species and parks in similar situations across the planet,” said WCS scientist Jon Beckmann.

Already, 30 pronghorn that were summering in Grand Teton National Park and the nearby Gros Ventre River drainage are readying for their long trip, and wearing GPS radio collars. When the pronghorn leave for their wintering grounds, the collars will send the scientists valuable data on the animals’ whereabouts, their traveling habits, and whether or not they make it to their migratory destinations over the next three years.

The research will also take a new look at the travelers the pronghorn meet along the way—namely wolves and coyotes. With the recent reintroduction of gray wolves to the southern section of Grand Teton, the relationships between wolves, coyotes, and pronghorn are changing. For instance, coyotes often prey upon pronghorn fawns, but these predators now face competition for food, and maybe even danger to themselves, from the wolves. By examining the species' population densities and how the various groups of animals are responding to the changes within the others, the conservationists will be able to better understand the ecosystems that the pronghorns are passing through.

“The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem contains unparalleled wildlife resources, and we need to understand the important influences on the system to preserve Wyoming’s world class wildlife heritage,” said Regional Supervisor Tim Fuchs for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.The status of the pronghorn in western Wyoming may serve as a case study for other parks around the world as conservation scientists and land managers continue to identify the benefits and limitations of parks created with the intention of conserving the wildlife within their boundaries.”

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