Josh Miner’s ranch outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, covers more than 100,000 acres and supports 1,000 cattle. It’s also home to about 1,000 pronghorn (often called American antelope) that eat the same forage and drink the same water as his cattle. And Miner is just fine with that.

“They are part of our landscape,” says Miner. “They belong there. We need the cattle [so we can] survive, but we need the pronghorn because they are a natural part of the landscape … In some ways they belong here more than we do.”

Pronghorn are uniquely North American mammals that have experienced a historic decline in population numbers largely as a result of human development. Image © Martin Perea/New Mexico Department of Fish and Game

Miner is one of 38 private landowners across New Mexico who participated in the state’s Pronghorn Conservation Recognition Program in 2021 to help increase pronghorn numbers. The state provides landowners with expert guidance on how to improve habitat. In return, landowners are allowed to extend the hunting season, which allows some of them to earn additional income. But that isn’t Miner’s main motivation.

Instead, supporting pronghorn is just one part of a larger goal to be a better steward of the land. “It can never be what it was,” says Miner of the landscape. “But I’d like to see it recover to a point where it is more resilient than it is now; where our [cattle] herds and wildlife herds, the grass and ground are more resilient. How we graze and how we deal with wildlife are parts of that.”

Miner’s family has ranched in this spot since the nineteenth century. But it is an admittedly damaged landscape, degraded by decades of activity at nearby Fort Union (which served as a U.S. Army supply depot for the Southwest between 1851 and 1891 and is now a National Monument) and the wagon wheels of the historic Santa Fe Trail which ran right through it. About 25 years ago Miner began noticing other threats, including a drier climate due to climate change. So he’s been shifting management of the ranch slowly over time. He now rotates his cattle among 25 different pastures to maintain healthy forage. Each pasture has a water source for cattle. Yet even when cattle have moved on to greener pastures, Miner maintains the water for wildlife, which includes not only pronghorn but bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, elk, and even beaver.

Private landowners maintain water sources for both livestock and wildlife. Image © Matthew Christmas

Still, 25 pastures on 100,000 acres means “hundreds and hundreds of miles” of fencing, according to Miner. And fences are the pronghorns’ nemesis. Before European settlement, millions of pronghorn roamed the West from Canada to Mexico, according to Anthony Opatz, State Pronghorn Biologist for New Mexico. By the turn of the twentieth century those numbers had plummeted to around 13,000. Why? Cattle ranchers had put up fences to keep cattle in; something pronghorn had never encountered before.

Pronghorn are excellent runners – the fastest in North America in fact. But fences seem to baffle them: they simply don’t jump over them. It was decades before scientists discovered that pronghorn prefer to crawl under fences, and need at least 18 inches of clearance to squeeze through. Typically, fences don’t have that clearance. Thousands of miles of fencing across the West disrupted pronghorns’ migration routes as well as their daily search for food and water. Moreover, early settlers hunted pronghorn indiscriminately, even during fawning season when females were giving birth. “It was kind of a free-for-all,” Opatz says. Hunting now is tightly regulated, and as old fences fall into disrepair, landowners like Miner are replacing them with pronghorn-friendly fencing. By 2019, public and private lands in New Mexico supported 60,000 pronghorn.

To help reduce the impact of human-made barriers some ranchers have taken to installing pronghorn-friendly fences. Image © Matthew Christmas
Pronghorn are the only species left from a group of antelope-like grazers that roamed North America before the ice age. Image © Martin Perea/New Mexico Department of Fish and Game

Pronghorn aren’t really antelope. Instead, they are the only species left from a group of antelope-like grazers that roamed North America before the ice age. Their ancient lineage could explain why they are so fast. Many scientists have speculated that pronghorn evolved speed to escape now-extinct predators that thrived millions of years ago. But the fossil record is unclear. With unusually large eyes and lung capacity, light bones and long limbs, pronghorn clearly have evolved to spot predators from a distance and outrace them, reaching 60 miles per hour for short distances. Only the African cheetah is faster, sprinting 70 miles per hour for up to 30 seconds. But unlike the cheetah, pronghorn can maintain speeds of up to 45 miles per hour for miles. Today, pronghorns’ main predator is coyotes, which are ubiquitous in the American West. Coyotes don’t outrun pronghorn but instead outsmart them, backing them up against fences or corralling them in groups according to Opatz. “It’s kind of like a game of chess.”

Human hunters are also predators, taking about 4,600 of New Mexico’s pronghorn in 2019. Matt Christmas’ family has ranched in New Mexico for generations, and many are avid hunters. Christmas participates in the state’s pronghorn protection program and proudly notes that he has replaced about 80 percent of his ranch’s boundary fencing with pronghorn friendly fences. “We’ve had no antelope deaths in our new fences,” he says. Like Miner, he carefully manages his cattle pastures so they aren’t overgrazed. He also provides salt and minerals at water sources and removes pinyon and juniper that take over grassland, leaving just the right amount for pronghorn to take cover. For Christmas, the pronghorn and elk on his property are a significant source of income. He runs Christmas Ranch Hunting, a full service outfitting company. He culls his herd to produce record-setting bucks for his clients, which means killing pronghorn he considers inferior and controlling predators like coyotes.

Hunting can be controversial to some wildlife lovers. But Opatz and many historians maintain that hunters were actually the initial drivers of conservation – including that famous hunter and former U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt. A recent review of 1,000 scientific studies on the impacts of recreational hunting in North America, Europe, and Africa by researchers at the University of Helsinki found that the impacts on species, ecosystems, and local economies varies. In most cases, regulated hunting did not threaten species populations and in some cases the revenue and management improved ecosystems. (The most common exception was when carnivores, such as lions, are hunted. In addition, some studies suggest that killing coyotes doesn’t effectively control populations – instead, it encourages them to breed even more.)

Although ranchers might have varied reasons for joining the state’s protection program “all people in the program care about pronghorn,” according to Opatz. “All of it boils down to [people] really really liking pronghorn and having respect for the animal. My job is to reward these landowners.”