Wildlife Species Guide
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Reproduction | Mortality | Hunting |
The pronghorn antelope, sometimes referred to as the prairie ghost, is found only on
America's Great Plains.
It is the only member of its family, Antilocapridae. Smaller than the white-tailed deer, the mature
buck weighs from 100 to 130 pounds and the female from 75 to 100 pounds. The male develops
large pronged horns which average about 12 inches and are shed each year. The female sometimes
develops smaller horns that are rarely as long as her ears. The pronghorn is extremely fast, with a
top speed of about 60 miles per hour, and can easily outrun any other animal that tries to catch it.
It has a large-capacity respiratory system and slender, strong legs that lack the usual dewclaws of
the deer family. An antelope has large eyes that protrude from the side of its head and provide
wideangle vision believed to be about the same as that of a man looking through 8-power
The pronghorn has dark brown hair on its back and sides with lighter colored hair on its belly, throat
and rump patch. A male has black cheeck patches, some black over his face, and black horns.
Distribution and abundance:
Fossils show the pronghorn roamed North America in its present-day form as early as the Age of
Mammals, over one million years ago. Historical records indicate the pronghorn population may
have numbered nearly 40 million at one time, which would have made it as abundant as bison.
During the early 20th century only about 13,000 remained, but thanks to competent management
there are about one million pronghorns alive today.
In 1907 Nebraska passed a law prohibiting the taking of elk, deer, antelope and beaver, and there
was no antelope hunting season until 1953, a period of 46 years. A 1925 publication cited that only
10 small bands totalling 187 animals remained from the thousands of antelope which once roamed
the Nebraska plains. In 1955 the population was estimated at 3,500 antelope, and by 1974 there were
about 10,000 pronghorns in the state. From the mid- 1970s the population declined for various
reasons. Major losses were attributed to the 1978-79 winter when some herds suffered mortalities
of 60 to 100 percent. Today, the number of antelope in the state is estimated at about 6,000.
Antelope occur primarily in the western half of the state with their major range in the Panhandle.
Highest densities are in northern Sioux and Dawes Counties.
The northwestern Nebraska rangeland typifies the state's best antelope habitat. The low rainfall of
17 inches or less, mostly occurring from April to July, results in thin vegetative cover that
encourages forbs and some types of shrubby growth, rangeland that is well suited to the antelope.
A pronghorn depends on its vision to alert it to danger and its speed to outrun predators and to
survive in the open landscape. Low precipitation, extremes of seasonal low and high temperatures,
and windy, harsh winters characterize the Great Plains and Basins area. The Pierre Hills rangeland
of northwest Nebraska contains the state's best antelope range and carries the highest pronghorn.
Aerial surveys in 1991 indicate the North Sioux Management Unit supports five antelope per square
mile while density for the entire Panhandle averages less than one per square mile.
The Pierre Hills is characterized by rolling plains developed on soft clay shales. The low hills are
round-topped and the valleys are broad swales. Pockets of highly eroded badlands break the
monotony of the shortgrass range. Vegetative cover is thin with sparse stands of grasses, principally
western wheatgrass, needle-and-thread, blue grama, hairy grama and buffalo grass. Prickly pear
cactus is quite abundant. Willow, cottonwood, ash and elm grow along water courses. Pockets of
sagebrush occur in the grassland. A variety of forbs is found scattered throughout the shortgrass and
The pronghorn's highly developed social nature results in it being found in small family groups to
large wintering herds. Being highly mobile, the pronghorn may cover a large area during the year
when the range is poor. The antelope's unique ability to erect patches of its bristle-like stiff body hair
allows it to release body heat in the hot summer, while the hollow air-filled hair insulates it against
sub-zero temperatures in the winter. It also uses the erectile hair patches on its rump to signal to the
herd the possibility of approaching danger. The white hair stands out vividly against the antelope's
drab environment and signals the alarm. There seem to be sentinels within the herd that stand guard
when the group feeds or rests, much like other herd or flock-type animals.
A major portion of the pronghorn's's diet is composed of forbs and browse plants, but normally little
A study in Kansas indicates cacti made up 40 percent of the antelope's diet, forbs 36, grasses 22 and
browse two percent.
In Nebraska where browse species are lacking on the antelope's range, pronghorns utilize winter
wheat and alfalfa.
Wise range managers encourage pronghorns to use their rangeland to discourage the increase of
undesirable plant species. Pronghorns also consume poisonous and injurious plants, including
larkspur, loco weeds, rubber weed, rayless goldenrod, cockleburs, needle-and-thread grass, yucca,
snakeweed, Russian thistle and saltbush.
During late summer and early fall, the bucks begin to challenge imaginary rivals, or two or more
bucks may engage in mock battles, but injuries seldom occur. As the height of courtship and mating
approaches in September and October, females in the harem become more and more attentive to the
Pronghorns have been known to breed as fawns but they usually breed for the first time when they
are 16 to 17 months of age. The does usually produces twin fawns in early June after a gestation
period of about 250 days.
Fawn production has been as high as 105 fawns per 100 does in one unit, but a 1991 survey in the
Panhandle indicated a ratio of 59 fawns per 100 does.
Fawns are usually born in swales and low-lying areas with small ridges or hills surrounding them
where the vegetation is short and sparse. At birth a fawn weighs between five and nine pounds.
The greatest losses occur during the first two months of life. Only about 40 percent of the fawns
born in June live until mid-July. In Nebraska most of the 60 percent loss of fawns is due to coyote
predation. Coyote control can improve fawn survival, but it is not economically practical on a large
scale. In a few areas bobcats are important predators and in areas close to bluffs golden eagles kill
and feed on fawns.
Adult mortality probably averages about 10 percent annually, but exceptional circumstances such
as the severe winter of 1978-79 can be devastating.
Wildlife is a renewable resource and if managed wisely, can be cropped annually without depleting
the stock. On this premise the resource is managed to provide the greatest number of antelope and
recreational benefits to the hunter while keeping numbers at levels consistent with agricultural
interests of landowners.
Information on population, production, harvest and general health of the herd is incorporated into
annual management recommendations.
During the 36 years since 1953 (the 1958 season was closed) 39,018 rifle hunters harvested 30,963
pronghorns for an average hunter success of 81 percent.
Due to the low pronghorn's population in 1989, the only unit open to hunting was the North Sioux,
and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commissioners authorized the issuance of only 50 buck-only
permits. The number of antelope increased in 1990 and 100 hunting permits were issued, and as the
herd continued to grow, that number increased to 325 Permits in 1991.
Hunting the Pronghorn
Techniques and strategies for hunting pronghorns vary with individual hunters and field conditions.
Pre-season shooting practice and scouting the area to study the habits of individual herds are
strongly recommended. Distances can be deceptive in the open space. Antelope hunting requires
discipline, patience, experience and knowledge of the species. The hunter should quietly and
carefully approach as close to the antelope as possible, or until he is certain a clean, one-shot kill
can be made.
When field dressing an antelope take special pains to prevent paunch material or hair from
contaminating the meat, as much of the wild or gamey flavor attributed to antelope or other game
is the result of careless handling. Bacterial growth and decay of meat depends on warmth and
moisture, so it is important to cool and dry the carcass as soon as possible.
Memories that will last a lifetime, many meals of delicious antelope meat, and a beautiful mount
for the den are rewards of the hunt.