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Montanans: Beware of Taking Antelope for Granted

September 13, 2010 | by Diane Tipton

If you grew up in Montana, you may be taking the state's antelope, or pronghorn, for granted. That would be a huge mistake, according to Andrew Jakes, a PhD student at the University of Calgary and former FWP employee who studies the pronghorn antelope.

"Montanan's are so accustomed to antelope many of them may not realize that the state has the second highest antelope population in the world, except for Wyoming," Jakes said. "The antelope's traditional range extended from the prairie and sagebrush flats in Northern Mexico to the southern portions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Today it is a big deal for folks in California, Texas and Manitoba to see antelope."

Jakes said while antelope numbers in their traditional range once rivaled those of the bison, they hit bottom at less than 13,000 animals in the early 20 th Century. Today there are about 1.2 million antelope found primarily in sagebrush and native prairie. Montana is considered a core area of the species' modern range.

"Antelope are cool. They are the only endemic ungulate holdover from North America from the time of the huge short-nosed bear, mammoths, ground sloths and other mega fauna," Jakes said. "They are also the only species left in their family. Genetically, their closest relative is the giraffe."

Jakes is part of a team carrying out a multi-year, trans-boundary study of antelope. The research is sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the World Wildlife Fund, the University of Calgary, the Bureau of Land Management, Alberta Conservation Association and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment.

The researchers are fitting antelope with GPS collars so satellites can track the animals' locations every four hours. This tracking data is stored in the collars, which drop off after 52 weeks. Jakes and his fellow scientists collect this data to learn about antelopes' seasonal resource requirements, annual migrations, and responses to various obstacles on the landscape. One of the herds Jakes is studying has been shown to make the continent's second longest migration, a nearly 500-mile roundtrip.

"When antelope migrate to escape inhospitable conditions, they encounter roads, fences and canals today. Negotiating multiple obstacles decreases valuable energy reserves needed for survival," Jakes said. "We want to measure the effects of these and other obstacles—such as oil and gas development, roads, and wind power generation— on the species."

Jakes said the researchers hope to develop a computer-based tool to forecast how land use changes might affect resource use and migration of antelope herds. Such a tool may help balance economic development and the needs of sustainable wildlife populations on the northern high plains.

Meanwhile, Jakes delights in the unique characteristics of the critter he studies. For example, its most well known defense mechanism is to run. "After an antelope sees you it will continuously gauge the distance separating them from you. They can maintain that degree of separation by reaching top speeds of 60 mph," he said.

Another characteristic Jakes admires is the sheer robustness of the antelope. "At 120 pounds, it sustains itself during some horrific winter conditions on its range," he said. "Watching antelope simultaneously aggregate during a severe winter event and begin to migrate is one of nature's most awe inspiring sights."

While antelope numbers are up from their all time lows, sustaining Montana's vast landscapes during a period of significant and increasing pressures on them is paramount for antelope. "We want to do everything we can to keep Montana's antelope population robust as we work toward a better understanding of how today's changes are impacting the future of this extremely unique creature," Jakes said.