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New Project Aims To Find, Count Montana's Pronghorn

A helicopter bears down on a herd of pronhorn
Kit Fischer
National Wildlife Federation

Montana is home to the second biggest population of antelope in the country. But wildlife managers don’t know as much about them compared to other game like elk and deer. A new six-year project that uses helicopters and pickup truck laboratories aims to fill in the gaps and discover why some herds in the state are struggling.

Early morning in Paradise Valley, several researchers wait beside their silver pick-up trucks on a dirt road. They try to stay out of the strong, cold wind and scan the field for the telltale white rumps and curved black horns of pronghorn, commonly called antelope.

The upper Yellowstone region historically supported over 1,000 pronghorn. The most recent count from 2017 found just 199.

“Pronghorn are one of the species, as compared to deer and elk, that we just don’t know quite as much about," says Kelly Proffitt, a wildlife research biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the lead for the agency’s new pronghorn project.

Proffitt says FWP only started assembling state-wide pronghorn population estimates in 2011. The data show some herds are dwindling and well below the agency’s population goals.

In Hunting District 481, which crosses portions of Fergus, Judith Basin and Petroleum counties, the number of pronghorn dropped from over 1000 in 2012 to fewer than 300 last year.

Northwest of Roundup, the pronghorn population is about 50 percent below FWP’s objective.

Proffitt says figuring out why requires basic data on migration routes and habitat use, causes of death, pregnancy rates and diseases.

“The goal of this project is just to provide that baseline information so that we can work with the different landowners, private and public landowners, to try to make that habitat as good as possible for the animals," she says.

That could look like removing or modifying fences that block migration paths. She says more information will also help FWP decide if the agency needs to adjust hunting regulations.

Last winter, she and her team captured 40 adult female pronghorn in the Madison Valley to outfit the animals with GPS collars and collect samples.

This year they expanded to seven additional study locations, including Paradise Valley.

To get their data, FWP contracts with Quicksilver Air, a private company based out of Alaska that specializes in wildlife captures for research.

“We do all the gunning and mugging and all the actual hands-on with the animals ourselves,” says crew member Andy Orlando.

Gunning is when the crew shoots nets from the air to catch the animal. And mugging?

“Jumping out of the helicopter and getting the animal out of the net and hobbling it up," Orlando says.

He'll tie the animal’s feet together and blindfold it rather than using tranquilizers.

“Then we collect biological samples, blood, genetics, whatever they need, take measurements, put collars on, put ear tags in, the whole process,” Orlando says.

Off in the distance, an FWP pilot flies a small, yellow plane in search of a pronghorn herd and radios in the location. Proffitt, Quicksilver’s pilot and two muggers hop in the helicopter with bags full of GPS collars and sample kits.

A white truck pumps an orange helicopter full of fuel while two people look on.
Credit Rachel Cramer / Yellowstone Public Radio
Yellowstone Public Radio
A helicopter refuels in between collecting pronghorn samples in Park County on Mar. 3, 2020.

Less than an hour later, the helicopter returns to drop off used sample kits and re-fuel before taking off again.

Jesse DeVoe with the University of Montana and FWP is the research technician for the project. He plops the 10 filled sample kits onto the backseat of his truck, which serves as his lab for the day. He pulls vials of blood out of Ziplock baggies.

"This is kind of the less glamorous job," he says. "I feel like all I try to do is keep track of numbers and samples."

Jesse DeVoe holds a vial of serum while sampling pronghorn in Park County on Mar. 2, 2020.
Credit Rachel Cramer / Yellowstone Public Radio
Yellowstone Public Radio
Jesse DeVoe holds a vial of serum while sampling pronghorn in Park County on Mar. 2, 2020.

DeVoe places the vials into a centrifuge powered off his truck’s cigarette lighter. The machine spins the vials until the red blood cells settle on the bottom. The clear, reddish liquid, called serum, stays on the top.

Once the researchers are back in the lab, they’ll be able to test the serum to find out if that particular pronghorn was pregnant and whether it had been exposed to certain diseases.

DeVoe checks the other items in the Ziplock baggies, including fecal samples, which they’ll use to learn about the animal’s diet, and hair samples for future DNA testing.

In the coming months, the researchers will be processing the data from Paradise Valley, along with Madison and Big Hole valleys, four study areas between Lewistown and Glasgow and the southeast corner of the state.

They’re planning to produce maps of pronghorn habitat and migration routes, which FWP and partners will use in their conservation efforts. The researchers expect to release an initial report next year.