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Something I have in common with Theodore Roosevelt is that he, like I, could be a perfectly miserable shot on antelope.
Once upon a time, I, like he, could admit, “I had thus bagged one prong-buck, as the net outcome of the expenditure of 14 cartridges. This was certainly not good shooting … ,” which is a bully understatement.
The difference, of course, is that Roosevelt was likely shooting a Winchester 1886 .45-90 with iron sights and a trajectory like a dying swan. I won’t say what I was shooting when I, yes, once missed a ’lope with 14 cartridges over the course of a multi-hour chase; but it was definitely a step up, ballistically.
For some reason, antelope seem to invite poor shooting, which is a shame for such an amazing creature. Emblematic of Wyoming, it is literally the most singular big-game animal in North America.
“The antelope is a queer-looking rather than a beautiful animal,” Roosevelt wrote in 1885, noting its “curious pronged horns, great bulging eyes, and strange bridle-like marks and bands on the face and throat.”
These he judged “more striking, but less handsome, than the delicate head and branching antlers of a deer; and it entirely lacks the latter animal’s grace of movement.” And he further faulted “its form and look, when standing still,” for being “rather angular and goat-like, and its movements merely have the charm that comes from lightness, speed and agility,” as if that were not enough.
Speed and agility hardly sum up the pronghorn’s prowess. Antilocapra americana forms the totality of not only its own genus, but its own family, the antilocapridae, occupying, according to the biologists, “a unique and uncertain taxonomic position between deer and bovids.”
Unlike so many other large North American mammals that are ultimately Eurasian in origin (elk, moose, sheep), the pronghorn evolved entirely on this continent, being whittled into shape and swiftness by thousands of years of pursuit by an extinct American cheetah. Today, it is still looking over its shoulder for the ghost of that sprinting cat, making it far faster than it has any reason to be, easily able to outclass any extant predator in not only velocity but stamina.
The pronghorn is entirely built for long-distance speed, and its high-performance features are almost too many to list — extremely large heart, lungs, and liver and significantly greater quantities of red blood and hemoglobin than similarly sized animals; oversized windpipe for turbo charging; special built-in “heat exchangers;” dowel-thin legs (why they don’t jump); ingeniously engineered skeletal structure; and legendary eyesight. Race a thoroughbred against a pronghorn over a measured mile-and-a-half, and the horse is only hitting the quarter pole when the pronghorn’s dust has already settled over the finish line.
This is why pronghorns are often so badly treated.
Hunters will shoot too far at pronghorn moving too fast and the best that can come out of that is a near miss.
The worst is a wounded antelope that may have to be tracked for miles.
The fact is that the pronghorn is, pound for pound, one of the toughest animals in North America to kill.
On three legs it can probably cover twice as much ground as a mule deer can on four.
This is also what gives rise to the canard of antelope meat being poor fare. If a milk-fed veal calf ran two miles on an 85-degree day before being captured and killed, then partially dressed, thrown into the back of a pickup with its hide on, driven around for the rest of the day before being hung up, skinned and cooled, it wouldn’t be much on the plate, either.
The gift of the pronghorn, the most “Wyoming” of Wyoming big game, should not be abused.
So here are a few suggestions for the coming season, if I may.
First, pick a good, flat-shooting rifle and cartridge and mount a good scope. Then, practice, practice, practice.
Never succumb to the idea that there is any pronghorn that cannot be stalked, or certainly gotten a lot closer to.
Take your time. Use the features of the terrain to screen your approach. Get into position and find a solid rest before you pull the trigger.
When the antelope is taken, dress out everything from the windpipe down. If you’ll be a while getting it to a cool, shady spot to skin, have some milk jugs filled with frozen water and put them in the body cavity to chill it.
Finally, show respect to the pronghorn.
It’s the only one we’ve got.
Tom McIntyre is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.