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The unique story of seasonal pronghorn migrations from northeastern Montana to Canada is documented in a new multimedia website presentation.

“On the Move: Pronghorn Migrations Across Seasons” documents in photos, maps, video, audio and stories how the ancient species has adapted over time to live in the often harsh prairie environment. The StoryMap also delves into new problems pronghorns face due to human development including roads, fences and climate change.

Developed in a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation, the interactive story follows the life of one doe as a way to educate the public, taking viewers through an entire year of what the animals face during different seasons. The end goal is to increase public awareness to build momentum to protect prairie landscapes so species like pronghorns continue to thrive.

“It’s not too late to secure these ancient pathways,” said Kelsey Molloy, a Nature Conservancy range ecologist. “With the cooperation of landowners, scientists, agencies and conservation organizations, a future for these beautiful animals can be assured.”

Research

The push for pronghorn conservation comes as researchers are securing more information thanks to GPS technology on how far the animals move each year, along with when, where and how.

“If we can grasp the vast scope of the pronghorns’ journey across the seasons — and the many challenges they face — then we can adapt and advance toward a holistic approach and promising frontier in wildlife conservation,” said Andrew Jakes, wildlife biologist for the National Wildlife Federation.

Jakes was involved in a six-year study of pronghorns that trekked from Montana into Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, as well as nonmigratory pronghorns.

The collars showed one pronghorn walking across the ice on Fort Peck Reservoir while another was documented running down Highway 2 for six hours during a blizzard as the temperature plunged below zero.

The doe that stars in “On the Move” is indicative of the hardships that a 110-pound animal goes through to survive in a rugged and tough environment, Jakes said.

Biology

Pronghorns are often referred to as antelope, but are not related to true antelope like those found in Africa. Instead, they are a distinct species unique to North America. Fossil evidence places the species on the landscape as far back as about 17 million years ago with the animals diversifying into 12 different species.

Modern pronghorns have been around at least 10,000 years, based on fossils recovered from California’s La Brea Tar Pits. Back then, the animal shared its landscape with the American cheetah, a cougar-like beast only with longer legs. Scientists speculate that outrunning predators like the now-extinct cheetah may be why pronghorns are so fast.

Known to hit speeds of 60 mph, pronghorns are the fastest land animal in North America and one of the few animals to survive the last Ice Age. Their keen eyesight helps them to detect predators up to four miles away while a large windpipe and heart ensures they outrun most attackers.

Before Euro-Americans moved westward, pronghorn populations are estimated to have been as high as 40 million — possibly outnumbering bison. By the early 1900s, however, market hunting and settlers had reduced the population to less than 20,000.

Despite the pressures on pronghorns, they have been able to endure. Recent studies have documented them as having the second longest land migration route in the continental United States.

Outcome

Molloy said she hopes the pronghorn story helps draw attention to the importance of prairies as an ecosystem.

“We haven’t always been good at telling the story of grasslands,” she said. “Pronghorns seem to be a way to tell that story because they need a whole landscape.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, about 2.6 million acres of intact grassland — an area larger than Yellowstone National Park — were plowed in 2019 to plant crops, a 500,000 acre increase compared to 2018.

“When you see images of devastating deforestation it invokes an emotional response and an immediate connection to the climate impacts of that destruction,” said Martha Kauffman, vice president of the Northern Great Plains program at WWF, in a press release. “But during each year over the last decade, we’ve seen the grasslands of the Great Plains being replaced by croplands at comparable rates to the clearing of the Brazilian Amazon. It’s time we also sound the alarm on grassland conversion and take immediate steps to preserve the natural benefits and climate-fighting solutions this region provides.”

Crew

The multimedia map story took about a year to produce with help from three biologists, a photographer, three multimedia designers and one contractor to put it all together. So far “On the Move” has generated about 2,500 views.

“I sent it to my dad,” Molloy said, because it helped tell the story of what she does. “A lot of times what I do feels a little more abstract.”

She’s also shared it with friends, noting that the videos of pronghorns swimming rivers and crawling under fences has the ability to present the story of the animals in a way more people can relate to rather than simply reading.

Molloy is hoping that the information gets shared widely, especially to lawmakers to educate them about the importance of keeping the prairie ecosystem intact.

Jakes said “On the Move” is also interactive. Under the conservation tab visitors can learn how to make fences friendly to pronghorns (they crawl under fences rather than jump them like deer). Citizen scientists can download the app WildlifeXing to help document migratory pathways.

“On the Move” reinforces that agencies, organizations and landowners need to work together, Jakes added.

“We see pronghorns as characters that show a landscape approach to connectivity,” he said. “Humans are a huge part of the solution to keep that an intact system.”

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