Most hunters seek memories as well as meat—an engraving of afterimages that can be read long after the last haunch of venison is consumed and the horns have gone dusty on the game-room wall. With luck, hunting is an anthology of odd sounds, strange sights, queer bits of lore and fact, beauty and grotesquery glimpsed through the low-sun autumn light.
Hunting journals are never composed after dark. Energy levels simply cannot sustain contemplation following a full day in the field with every sense operating at maximum level. Even so, these notes seem particularly cramped, hurried, skittery as lizards on hot rock, written as they were in the lee of a boulder during a hasty lunch. The pages stick together, spattered with bits of peanut butter, dark dots of dried blood, and here—what's this?—a withered sliver of onion. It must have fallen there when we ate the antelope liver. We fried it with bacon and onions in the windy half-light. We were cold, but the meat was sweet and tender. Now the onion sliver becomes a form of calligraphy recording that day's hunt.
It is a creature of strangely mixed characteristics, for it has the feet of a Giraffe, the glands of a goat, the coat of a Deer, the horns of an ox and Deer combined, the eyes of a Gazelle, the build of an Antelope and—the speed of the wind.
That may sound like something from a medieval bestiary, but actually it's Ernest Thompson Seton's paean, written in 1913, to the pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana), the North American continent's unique contribution to the big-game roster of the world. The pronghorn is monotypic—the sole representative of its family, genus or species on earth. Like a giraffe, it has no dew-claws. Like a goat, it does have a gallbladder. Like a deer, it has brittle, hollow hair and horns that branch. Unlike any other animal, it both sheds its horns annually and retains them. To explain: The outer horn sheaths fall off but the inner, bony cores remain.
The pronghorn wasn't always a monotype. From its arrival in North America—probably from Asia—during the middle Miocene epoch some 18 million years ago until the end of the Pleistocene 11,000 years ago, the antilocaprid evolved into at least 13 genera and dozens of species and subspecies. This was the age of gigantism, with giant bison (Bison latifrons) that had horns spanning nine feet tip to tip and monstrous dire wolves that could chomp a contemporary Great Dane in a few bites. But, according to Dr. Michael Voorhies, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Nebraska, none of the pronghorn's ancestors exceeded the modern animal's height and weight (3� feet at the shoulder, about 120 pounds) by more than 20%, and some were plain tiny. "The species Capromeryx was no bigger than a jackrabbit," Voorhies says.
Whatever their variations in size, they were the most abundant small-hoofed mammals in North America, with estimates of the total population running from 35 to 50 million animals. Judging by fossil finds, they ranged from Florida to the Pacific Coast, from modern Saskatchewan on the north to Chihuahua in the south. Then, in the late Pleistocene epoch, their numbers and variety suddenly began to decline.
"That was about the time man arrived in North America," Voorhies says. "Some paleontologists speculate that hunting pressure did the trick—Man, the Superhunter, coming into a new country. But it didn't have to be hunting alone that did it. Even a comparatively few men can greatly alter a habitat by other means."
Much attention has been paid to the kill-off of the buffalo herds, which finished just a century ago, leaving a pitiful handful of several hundred bison where once there had been an estimated 100 million. The pronghorn was undergoing a similar fate—though less spectacularly and for different reasons.
The slaughter of the American bison was quite calculated and intentional. By contrast, the near extinction of the pronghorn was almost an afterthought. Antelope were never as heavily hunted as bison; they are too keen-eyed and swift to be shot in great numbers at close range. "In no other kind of hunting," wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his 1893 book, The Wilderness Hunter, "is there so much long-distance shooting, or so many shots fired for every head of game bagged." Teddy knew of what he wrote—he had fired 14 rounds from his Winchester at ranges of up to 400 yards in order to drop one "prong-buck."
Where buffalo and pronghorn coexist, they feed side by side, but not on the same forage. Buffalo prefer grass, while pronghorn primarily eat sagebrush and forbs. When buffalo were in abundance, they kept the grass cropped, allowing the shade-intolerant sage and forbs to flourish. But when the bison were shot off, the grass grew unchecked and smothered the prime pronghorn feed. Not until cattle and sheep came in abundance to eat the grass did favorable grazing conditions return for the antelope.