In the early fall, when the seed stalks of the prairie grasses shine like new brass in the slanting sun, ranchers on the high plains of South Dakota get a sudden but not unexpected visit from Joe Foss, governor of the state. The 42-year-old, hunting, flying governor alights among them wearing blue jeans and a Stetson, with a cigar stub clamped in his mouth, a quiver of arrows on his back and a fancy, lacquered, recurved hunting bow in hand. Joe Foss bids his ranching friends hello and disappears out on the prairie. When he returns three days later, his pants heavy with dust and his cigar stub nested in a stubbly beard, Joe has left two or three of his arrows somewhere in the sage and he has nothing tangible to show for the loss.
Foss's habit of dropping suddenly out of the sky is nothing new—he campaigned that way for governor. His pants and Stetson are typical enough, too, and the cigar is a familiar identification mark, harking back 15 years to Guadalcanal, where, as a Marine captain, cigar-chewing Joe Foss shot down 26 Japanese planes in less than four months. Foss has always loved hunting. He has hunted almost every game species in South Dakota, done a fair bit of hunting elsewhere, and by now almost all Dakota knows him as a hunter who seldom misses. But this going out on the prairie with a bow and coming back empty-handed is something new.
What Governor Foss seeks with his bow on the prairie, and what he has yet to get in two seasons of trying, is a pronghorn antelope, the most handsome creature of the high plains. South Dakotans, keeping pace with the generally growing popularity of bow hunting, have been letting fly more and more arrows every year at deer and antelope. Very few of their arrows to date have landed in antelope. The antelope being what it is, the fastest mammal of this continent and reputedly second only to the cheetah in the world, most Dakota archers have preferred to play for surer shots at deer. In the three years since the state set aside a special bow season for antelope, 246 hunters have tried and 17 have succeeded. So the odds for the antelope, roughly, are 15 to 1, which means Governor Foss should get his antelope some time in the next 12 years if his supply of arrows, cigars and patience lasts that long.
Joe Foss intends to keep at it. It is the long-shot odds that have attracted Foss and 95 other bow hunters to the sport again this year.
"Shooting an antelope with a gun," Joe Foss says, "is like pouring sand in a sleeping man's ear. It's hard to miss. But hunting them with a bow is the dangdest occupation you ever saw. Last year I fired 16 arrows at antelope, most of them going by me full bore. I missed them all. [Hunters who were with Foss testify that he actually came close twice, rattling arrows off the horns of two bucks.] When you can get 16 shots at antelope in two days, you really don't care whether you get any meat."
For a good gun hunter the antelope is, as Governor Foss claims, a pushover, a species that is getting easier and easier to push over in this day of improved powder loads and super scopes, a fact borne out by a look at the records. From the statistics it has kept, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department knows that somewhere between 89% and 94% of the gun hunters issued permits each year will come off the ranges with antelope. In fact, by sundown of the first day of the nine-day season, 80%, of the gun hunters have their antelope and are heading home. This is the sort of hunter success that some states would be hard put to beat if they had open season on dairy cows.
Early records indicate that the antelope was a fairly easy shot even in the days of low-powered muzzle loaders and iron sights. The first men who came with firearms found the plains aswarm with them. The antelope population then is reckoned to have been more than 20 million and possibly twice that. When the naturalist, John James Audubon, moved through the West over a century ago he was much taken by the pomp and elegance of the antelope's walk and trot and the swift beauty of a galloping herd, whose legs moved so fast they seemed to have no legs as they swept like a tawny wave over the grassy hills and swales.
Curious and nervous
Here was a handsome and different animal which naturalists felt obliged to place as a species in a family and genus of its own. It is somewhat like the antelope of Africa, and like a giraffe and like a goat (the female is commonly called a "doe" and the young of the year commonly a "kid"). Its pronged horns are true horns, yet it sheds them annually like deer antlers. The antelope has eyes that would shame an eagle, the curiosity of a crow and, when nervous, it barks like a dog. It is an animal seemingly proud of its speed. In the old days a small herd catching sight of a rider on a galloping horse sometimes would come galloping toward the man and race along on a parallel course. Then, after a mile or so, as if to brand man and horse as slow, inferior things, the herd would veer across the rider's course in near collision and leave the rider in dust. Antelope reputedly can run 65 miles an hour; they have been clocked reliably by wardens and biologists at more than 50 miles an hour. Adult antelope have been known to run four miles without stopping at over 30 miles an hour, and a month-old kid, beset by coyotes, was clocked at 20 miles an hour for five consecutive miles.
Around the turn of the century, under the heavy gunfire, the U.S. antelope population had dropped to about 17,000. Protective legislation has now put the breed on the road back. South Dakota alone this year has 17,000 head, and the total U.S. population is probably around 300,000. Several of the antelope's habits make it particularly vulnerable to gunfire. It will often stop and stand in silhouette on high ground to survey the sweep ahead with its excellent eyes. This was smart enough in the day of the Indian and short-range arrows, but a poor thing after the coming of the gun. Early settlers found that by waving a flag on a stick they could draw curious antelope within easy range—close enough even for a good bow shot. But antelope do not get sucked in so easily any more.