Yesterday, I had a few hours free. My first year or so in Montana, I avoided the prairie. Having grown up in heavily forested Allegheny hills, the vast wide open windy Big Sky sagebrush country gave me the heebie-jeebies. But I soon came to love the great "empty" desert spaces for their beauty and unique ecology. What's not to love?
Every encounter with Nature is an exercise in Shoshin. There is no book to overdetermine the experience, and each time you step out you & the world are all coming together for the first time. I occasionally find elk sign on the prairie miles from the nearest forest cover, but still think of them as a forest animal. I was agape yesterday to watch a large herd cross a coulee and bed on a nearby ridge (photos taken through binoculars, so they're a bit fuzzy):
My first hike turned up no glimpse of antelope, so I drove to a higher area and parked near a small circular butte that is like a collapsed volcano cone ringed with rock outcrops. Sometimes there are antelope hiding there. Yesterday, there were not. But I hiked up and over the outcrop ring, glassed the surrounding area, and found a herd bedded a half-mile away in a remote spot hidden from view of the roads that crisscross the area. I backtracked over the ring and down another place to approach more closely, and after several hundred yards of stalking across the open, rocky, cactus-laden ground I was within shooting range. A little further than I like to shoot (it was about 300 yards), but with a good rest the little 257 Roberts rifle is accurate at this distance. From the herd of a dozen or so does and fawns, with one nice buck with horns of about 12 inches, I chose a mature doe:
Pronghorn antelope (Antilocarpa americana) are marvelously adapted for life on the sagebrush prairie. They eat a broad range of grasses, shrubs, coarse forbs, and even cacti. Their highly efficient digestive system makes the most of whatever is available. They are fleet of foot, and can sustain high speeds (more than 40 mph) longer than any living land mammal. A herd flows like a stream of living water over the roughest of ground. The fleshy hooves, without dewclaws, help make this possible:
The antelope's vision is remarkable. I was once stalking a herd and peeked over a rocky outcrop. From a half-mile away, several spotted me instantly. I've since learned to use cover and move very slowly--even sparse vegetation will break up your outline if you stay low and go slow. (But watch out for that cactus--I seldom come home from an antelope hunt without prickly pear cactus spines in my hands, knees, elbows, and butt.) Look at the large eye in relation to the size of an antelope's head, and you get some idea of how sharp their vision is: