Seeing Montana’s Pronghorn

by Barbara Lee | Photo © John Costello

Meet the world’s fastest endurance runner. The open grasslands and sagebrush of southwest Montana are prime areas to spot the incredibly speedy pronghorn, or pronghorn antelope as it is often called (although it is not actually an antelope). Fans of the cheetah may argue that the African feline is faster, but that’s only true for sprints of up to a quarter mile or so. Beyond that, the pronghorn will come in first with time to spare.

Biologists say that the pronghorn can’t match the cheetah’s sprint speed of up to 70 mph because the big cat’s flexible spine allows more time for its legs to push off the ground. The pronghorn’s aerobic capacity and long thin legs enable a pace of up to 55 mph, faster than the cheetah and every other land animal over long distances.
Weighing from 90 to 150 pounds, the light and agile pronghorn has eyes set high and wide on each side of the head to watch for danger. Its exceptional distance vision pairs well with the ability to move rapidly—so rapidly that an adult pronghorn might run an imaginary marathon in less than 50 minutes.

Over many decades, hunting and other forms of human impact, especially fencing, drastically reduced Montana’s pronghorn population. This speed machine is a poor jumper, and because its survival depends on the ability to migrate between summer and winter ranges, barriers that require jumping can be a death sentence. Since pronghorn are able to scoot under a barrier that has enough clearance at the bottom, Montanans increasingly appreciate the importance of “antelope-friendly” fencing on public and private lands.

The good news is that the state’s pronghorn numbers have increased due to protective efforts, but ongoing work to secure habitat and migration routes is essential for the future welfare of this remarkable species.

Where and when to spot pronghorn in Montana:
>> Good bets include open terrain such as ranch and farmland, sagebrush, fields and valley bottoms, state and county parks with open habitat, national forest and other public use lands from southwest Montana’s Paradise Valley to Yellowstone National Park.
>> During winter, look in areas with minimal snow, for example, hillsides where wind has exposed vegetation.
>> The best times to spot pronghorn are dawn and dusk.
>> A good spotting scope will come in handy.
>> Check Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website at fwp.mt.gov for additional pronghorn information and viewing tips.