Jack McNeel
A small group of pronghorns on the Colville Reservation. The culturally iconic animals were reintroduced at the end of January, after a century of absence.

Heritage Restored: Pronghorns Return to Colville Reservation a Century After Extirpation

Jack McNeel

It has been a hundred years or more since pronghorn antelope last raced across the foothills of the Colville Reservation in Washington State. But that changed on January 28, when 52 pronghorns were released in the southwestern portion of the reservation.

The reintroduction has been a source of elation, said Richard Whitney, wildlife program manager for the Colville tribes.

“Most people are pretty excited about it,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network.

“It’s not just that pronghorn have been brought back to historical habitat,” said Eric Krause, head wildlife biologist for the tribes’ Game Management Division. “That’s definitely part of the story, but there’s a bigger part. When you look at the twelve tribes that were placed on the Colville Reservation, and think where they were from historically, their traditional areas, pronghorn antelope were part of their culture, their traditions, for seven of those twelve tribes.”

Discussions about relocating pronghorns to the reservation began more than 15 years ago, and this past year everything finally aligned.

“We went for it, and it happened,” Whitney observed.

The transfer and release went better even than expected. Krause had corresponded with others involved with translocation of pronghorns and been warned that they were pretty touchy and prone to injury and mortality. There was the possibility of not only injury during capture, but also the challenge of lengthy transport in horse trailers from the capture location in Nevada to the release point in central Washington some 15 hours later. Krause impressed upon his staff the necessity of handling the animals carefully, especially when it came to their legs, which break easily. He warned them that a couple could die en route, but as it turned out, they did not have to contend with that contingency.

“We were tickled, tickled!” Krause said. “Every animal got out and walked away on its own. When they got out they just walked around and then sauntered off.”

Aerial net gunning was used to capture the animals in Nevada with help from the Nevada Department of Wildlife. The location was a plateau about 6.5 miles in circumference. The plan was to capture the animals with the net and transport them to the nearest truck. From there a ground crew immediately took them to the processing station, where they were outfitted with GPS collars, and blood samples were collected.

Originally they planned to capture 50 adult animals and any fawns that were among them. Ambient temperature conditions caused the biologists to alter that rather than risk losing any animals, so they took fawns as part of the plan instead of as additions. The final total was 52 animals successfully captured and released in Washington. Ten or 11 were bucks, including three male fawns. The remainder were all females, including six or seven fawns. All the adults were outfitted with tracking collars.

Krause explained that the collars take location points every 12 hours and five minutes so that their location is noted twice a day. The extra five minutes means that eventually their locations are recorded at all times of the day. Krause can download that information daily. In the event of a death, if the collar hasn’t moved in 24 hours, the device e-mails him with collar number and location.

“It’s a pretty good system,” Krause said. “We’re really excited that we’ll have a good handle on where they’re going after release. The habitat will decide their use, and if we have mortalities we should be able to quickly determine cause of death.”

No decision has been made on future pronghorn initiatives, Whitney said.

“The goal is to restore the population, so future augmentations might be where we end up going,” Whitney said, estimating that there could be up to 100,000 acres of habitat available for pronghorns on the reservation, “give or take.”

“We will monitor them for a number of years and then develop management guidelines, but that’s to come,” Whitney said.

Meanwhile, he added, the Colville are simply enjoying the animals’ beauty, and reveling in having a part of tribal heritage back where it belongs.

“They’re a fun little creature,” he said. “They’re so beautiful, and something you don’t see every day, and certainly not here in Washington. It’s all about restoration. This is a primary goal of the wildlife program, to restore native and desired non-native species to the Colville Indian Reservation.”

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