Jeff Jardine

Once thick in the Valley, antelope now plays in mountains far away

It felt like I’d run into some old friends this week.

True, they just stared at me while I looked at them through a camera lens and an iPhone. No words exchanged. But then, those pronghorn antelope aren’t the gabbiest of creatures. Why, then, did it feel so good to see them again?

Because they are still there. They’ve survived the harsh winters of the Eastern Sierra and Nevada high deserts. They’ve outrun mountain lions and coyotes, and dodged no doubt their share of lead projectiles even though it is illegal to hunt them.

And because they have survived since the last time I ran across any of them, which was back in 1994, when I wrote about them.

The fact is, valley residents once saw vast herds of pronghorns. More than a half-million lived in the San Joaquin Valley and they also populated the foothills, Sierra and Eastern Sierra. But they were hunted to extinction in the valley after Mexican settlers, and then the whites, moved into the Valley. When the Gold Rush began, they were wiped out along with the bighorn sheep that also called the mountains home.

Now, unless you’re willing to drive a few hours over Sonora Pass, down the other side and into the hills east of Bridgeport, your only chance of seeing a pronghorn antelope would be one living in a zoo, stuffed in a museum, or mounted on the wall of a bar in Rio Vista.

Tuesday, after visiting Bodie State Historic Park for the umpteenth time and having crossed paths with a five-foot-long rattlesnake on the road up from Mono Lake, my wife and I took a ride up over the mountain from Bodie to Bridgeport as we headed toward home. Following a dirt and rock road that any pickup or SUV with clearance can handle from the beginning of summer into the fall, we came upon about a dozen pronghorns scattered on a hillside.

We stopped the Jeep. They just stood there looking at us, not particularly concerned. I managed to get off a couple of shots with the still camera and then scrambled to get video on my iPhone. A couple of them bounded away. Others stayed put, but never really took their eyes off of us.

From 1947 until 1985, the state transplanted 293 pronghorns into Mono County, bringing them in from as far away as Yellowstone National Park in Montana. Wildlife biologists expected the transplanted herds to thrive in the sagebrush-covered high desert landscape. But that didn’t happen. The herd from 1981 to 2010 ranged from 135 to 202 and averages about 162 annually. The most recent count tabbed the herd at 150. They compete with range cattle and sometimes wild horses for water and grasses, neither of which are plentiful in those hills. They migrate into Nevada, where some hunts are allowed, and back into Mono County, where they are not. They get old and die. Or they get diseases.

Coyotes and other predators prey on the calves, said Joe Hobbs, a senior environmental scientist with California Department of Fish & Wildlife. He manages both the elk and pronghorn antelope programs.

And the state hasn’t relocated any pronghorns to the region in more than 31 years. Thus, the Bodie herd is now a remnant group instead of a flourishing herd.

“They’re holding steady, but they’re not growing in numbers,” he said.

Some were captured and fitted with GPS devices to track their movement, but most shed their devices or the batteries no longer work. One of the pronghorns we saw had a green tag on its left ear and a red one on the right, but none of the others was marked.

No matter. It was good to see they’ve survived this long.

About a mile or so up the road, a big buck deer took refuge beneath a small tree and some dried brush.

The deer. The antelope. The range. Just as it should be.