arrival of Europeans.
Close your eyes and imagine the Santa Clara Valley before the arrival of Europeans. A rich sweeping grassland generously dotted with valley oaks provides ideal pasture land for pronghorn, tule elk and deer. Huge numbers of ducks, geese and other waterfowl visit the now gone wetlands as they stop off on their long trip along the Pacific flyway.
Eden lost? Mostly perhaps, but not completely. Seed populations of pronghorn have been introduced into the Mt. Hamilton range and appear to be thriving. “At one time, there were probably more pronghorn in the Santa Clara and Salinas valleys than deer, thousands of animals,” I was told by Henry Coletto, Santa Clara County’s fish and game warden.
Often incorrectly called antelope, pronghorn look like antelope but are not closely related to any other horned or hoofed animal. The pronghorn is the only species in its family, its brethren not having survived the Ice Age. They are a deer-sized animal with 10 to 18-inch curved-back horns that have a forward pointing prong half way up the front. They are the only animals to shed their horns. Able to run 30 to 40 miles per hour over long distances and exceeding 50 miles per hour in short bursts, the pronghorn is the fastest animal in the western hemisphere and may be the second fastest animal in the world next to the cheetah. They live in herds and prefer to graze on herbs and low shrubs in open country.
Millions of pronghorn used to roam the western United States, but by the early 1900s their numbers had dwindled to less than 20,000 animals. Legal protection has allowed their population to increase to approximately 600,000.
Henry Coletto worked with the California Department of Fish and Game to reintroduce the pronghorn into the San Felipe Ranch south of Mt. Hamilton. In the late 1980s, 51 animals were released that had been caught from a herd in Modoc County. Henry estimates that half of the animals died as expected in the first year as animals dispersed and struggled to find a home in unfamiliar territory. Pronghorn were spotted regularly by Coyote Avenue near U.S. 101 and as far away as Casa de Fruta.
“There are probably 50 to 60 animals out there now. About as many as we started with,” estimated Coletto. “For now, they have settled into the Isabel and San Antonio Valleys (private land) not far from the release site and the area near Del Valle Reservoir (south of Livermore) on East Bay MUD land.”
State officials and Coletto are pleased with the progress and optimistic about the future. “There is a lot of excellent country out there for those animals. It is only natural that they continue to spread into new areas like Coe Park and over the hill into the Central Valley side of the mountains where the habitat is ideal for them,” he said.
I asked Coletto about predators, mountain lions in particular. He said that coyotes, not mountain lions were probably the greatest threat to young and unfit pronghorn. “Mountain lions are ambush hunters that work in more wooded country,” Coletto told me. “Pronghorn prefer to graze in open country where coyotes are more likely to prey.”
Pronghorn have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but their best defense against predators are their incredible vision, their speed and the cooperation from their tendency to herd. When danger lurks, their white rump hairs are raised in warning, a signal visible for miles to other pronghorn.
Is there a time of year or are there locations where we might see pronghorn? “Not likely,” said Coletto. “They are mostly on private land, away from human activity. They like it that way.”
It would sure be nice to see them, but in this respect, our local pronghorn are like the Alaskan wilderness; I may never see one, but it sure makes me feel good to know they are there.
This column was originally printed in The Dispatch on Dec. 10, 1999.