Turf Battle

Mid-March on the western Wyoming range: Jim and I were surprised yesterday to see these two pronghorn antelope bucks engaged in a furious battle in the sagebrush.

Since it’s not breeding season, we assume it was a territorial dispute.

The two fairly evenly matched bucks went at each other for several minutes, until one buck broke away and fled. It appeared the slightly smaller buck had won, but not before both bucks were bloodied.

Spring, and Shared Range

Spring has arrived to our western Wyoming rangelands. We’ve already had temperatures in the 40s and snowmelt, with the resulting visit from our old friend mud – which we haven’t experienced for the longest time in our decade or so of drought. It’s been a pleasure to have to throw the truck in four-wheel drive to get in the driveway. No belly-aching from this corner.

The sandhill cranes have begun to arrive, with their crane calls in morning meadows our true sign of a change of season. We’ll (hopefully) have a few more snowstorms through early May, and I’ll be doing a rain dance for a wet spring to bring this arid range fully out of its dormancy.

The sandhill cranes come close to the house, and follow the sheep flock, nourishing themselves on scattered grain from winter feedlines we fork onto the snow.

Pronghorn antelope herds share this range with the sheep, in larger numbers during the winter months, and less in the heat of summer when they migrate to other areas for grazing. The sheep and the guardian dogs are accustomed to their presence as a part of the landscape in which we live.

It’s this time of year when the wildlife migrations begin, as snowmelt allows big game herds to move from lower elevation desert country and begin to follow the receding snow to the high country. Migratory domestic sheep herds will soon follow, using many of the same trails. Millions of hooves have traveled these paths, for eons. Here’s a glimpse of small herds of pronghorn antelope and elk lining out as they trail back north, to the Wind River Mountains.

Spring has arrived indeed.

New range

We got the sheep herd moved to new range today. We’re in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, and this private pasture is about seven miles from where a black wolf was seen in another sheep herd the day before. Federal control efforts on this pack of sheep-killing wolves continues. Wolves in Wyoming are federally protected, so federal officials have to be involved when there are conflicts. Rant is sporting a spiked collar to give him a little more protection should the wolf pay a visit to our herd.

Rant has been busy marking the new turf. His elbow joint is swollen with arthritis and he’s limping, but he’s got the heart of a lion when it comes to protecting his herd, part of which is seen below, checking out the sedge grasses in the slough that transects the pasture.

The herd shares the range with pronghorn antelope. Our ewes only have two teats, but pronghorns have four teats (click on the photo to enlarge). Can anyone tell me why? I’ve seen pronghorn triplets, but no more than that. This doe was drinking water in our driveway (runoff from the sprinkler).

The local sage grouse population in this area is BOOMING! Large broods are concentrated along irrigated hay meadows and it is a joy to see so many of these beautiful birds.

Pronghorn snow


A few images of pronghorn antelope in the snow yesterday – western Wyoming. Snow was falling like a light mist, with no direct sunlight, casting a gloom across the range. Beautiful in ways that only wild things are. Click on image to enlarge.

Learned behavior


This week was an interesting one on the Wyoming rangelands. The sage grouse broods are doing well, with the now adolescent-sized birds that accompanying their mothers. Most of the broods I’ve seen have five or six young, so it’s been a good year for chick production.

The pronghorn antelope fawns are growing as well, but their long legs look out of proportion with their young bodies at this stage of growth. Three times this week I’ve watched pronghorns jumping over a woven-wire fence, something that supposedly happens only rarely since pronghorn prefer to go under fences. The first time Jim and I witnessed this, we were driving near the allotment fence when I noticed a line of pronghorn trailing along the far side of the fence. When the group approached a low spot in the woven-wire, the first doe jumped the fence and cleared it. I realized the rest of the herd might follow, so I stopped to watch as the next two does took their turns, easily clearing the wire. The fawns did not follow, and at that point, our presence was noticed and the animals hurried away from the fenceline.

On Friday, I saw a pronghorn doe and her two fawns near the same fence again, and watched as the doe jumped over the fence in the same spot. I was running late, and didn’t have time to stop and watch the behavior of the rest of the herd.

On Saturday morning, I went back by the fence again, and this time saw one doe with three fawns. By the time I arrived, one fawn was on my side of the fence, with the remainder of the group on the far side. Hoping not to disturb them, I parked the truck at some distance from the group and sat and watched. After a few minutes of staring in my direction, the doe finally moved forward, jumping the fence. She patiently waited as the other two fawns nervously milled and finally jumped single-file over the fence to join her and the third fawn as they moved away.

This was an excellent lesson in learned behavior, and gives me hope for the ability of this species to adapt to human changes in its environment.

Eagle predation on pronghorn fawns

On July 1, as I drove down a two-tract road on the sheep allotment, I came upon two golden eagles on the ground. The raptors rose heavily into the air, weighed down by a recent meal. I drove straight to the spot in the sagebrush where the eagles had been grounded, and discovered the fresh remains of a pronghorn antelope fawn. This predation event was about three and one-half miles from a similar occurrence I witnessed on June 21. That earlier event also involved two golden eagles, and I’ve every reason to assume it was the same two. I photographed the eagles and the remains of the fawns in both events. If these two eagles are keying on pronghorn fawns, imagine the success they could have in this vast sagebrush steppe.

I wondered what the impact of eagle predation on fawns is in areas with abundant eagle populations. Sheep producers in eastern Wyoming have told us that golden eagles sometimes take a big toll on their lamb crops, until pronghorn fawning begins and the eagles switch to fawns. I see golden eagles frequently on the sheep allotment, even perched on hillsides above the sheep, but am thankful to report we haven’t had any problems with them. I think the fact that our guardian dogs don’t like big birds has something to do with it.

Reviewers needed

My next nonfiction children’s book will be released this fall, so my publishing house is currently preparing the marketing plan. The book is about pronghorn antelope, and the photographer is my talented friend Mark Gocke. This is my first nature title for kids (my other books are about agriculture). If you’re a blogger or writer for a newspaper or magazine who would like an advance copy of the book for a review, please send me an email at catu2 at mac dotcom. Include your mailing address and we’ll see about getting you hooked up. Thanks for your help. Steve, you’re automatically on the list.

Fall migration


Jim and I once again had the pleasure of being at the right place at the right time today, as part of the Sublette pronghorn antelope herd came through in its major fall migration. This bunch had just swam the New Fork River, and came through the meadow next to our sheep herd. The burros bunched the sheep into one group and started moving them out of the way, while the dogs stayed between the two herds.

Beautiful animals – click on the photo for a larger view.

Babysitting

I drive by a hay meadow outside of Pinedale on a regular basis and always look at the pronghorn antelope that inhabit that spot. In the last few weeks, there were about five does that had their fawns in the meadow. This afternoon I had to laugh, since this one doe had apparently been assigned babysitting duty to seven fawns. The same thing happens with our domestic sheep – ewes take turns babysitting for the nursery bunch.

Pronghorn peace

I’ve been watching a young pronghorn doe this past week, as she’s been hanging out, alone, in the hay meadow on the north side of the highway. The native grass is growing really well, the irrigation ditch is full, and it’s very beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The most disturbance that occurs there is when the ranch truck drives in once a day to feed Bambino, the fat bull residing in the corral for about another week (at which time he gets to go back to his cow herd).

Every day, I drive in slowly, soaking up the scene, watching the ducks splashing in the irrigation water, willets and curlews probing in the mud, ospreys and redtails screeching above, killdeer trying to distract me away from their nests, cottontails nibbling this and that. There is so much wildlife here at this time of year it’s amazing, and we try to leave everything alone since the atmosphere here is very similar to the peace we seek on the lambing ground with our ewes.

Today, the lone doe had a small smudge of brown standing next to her – she had given birth to her first fawn. By the time I got the truck turned around to leave, and get a few shots with the camera, the baby had laid back down, hiding, and the mother had disappeared on the hillside above the meadow. I guiltily took a few shots with my big lens, and left. When I drove back down the highway a few hours later, I noticed the doe was back in the meadow, nonchalantly grazing and taking it easy. Ah, peace on earth.