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September 2010 cover image Oh Deer!

From the Pen of Carter P. Smith

My sweet wife has long grown accustomed to the little rituals I put her through _during our extended car trips — “drive-by botany,” “roadside birding,” “name that road kill,” “scenic detours” on old country roads I am partial to and, of course, having to tolerate my ever-running commentary on the ecological state of whatever countryside we happen to be passing through. It is great fun ... for at least one of us.

So, on a recent outing to far West Texas, she wasn’t the least bit surprised when I tasked her with counting the number of pronghorn antelope we saw during our drive. Ever game, she began to gaze out intently on the desert pastures as we left Fort Stockton and headed south to Marathon and then back west to Alpine. At Alpine, with nary an antelope on her count, she asked if she should keep looking. From there, it was south to Terlingua and then over to Presidio and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Still no antelope. A couple of days later, we drove back through Presidio and headed north to Marfa and then back east to Marathon and ultimately north to Fort Stockton.

Along the way, we saw a lot of pretty country. What we didn’t see, however, was a pronghorn antelope. Not a one.

As I recounted over and over to my dear wife, that was pretty telling. We had just driven through some of the best pronghorn habitat in all of Texas and didn’t catch a glimpse of one of Texas’ premier desert big game species. So where have they all gone?

As my colleague, Steve Lightfoot, writes in his accompanying article, we aren’t the only ones interested in answering that question. So, too, are many West Texas landowners, hunters and conservationists. Fortunately, we have a very committed team focused on solving this problem, including scientists at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Sul Ross State University’s Borderlands Research Institute, wildlife veterinarians and area ranchers and outfitters.

Right now, we know that pronghorns in that area are carrying much higher concentrations of internal parasites, specifically bloodworms, than pronghorns in other parts of the state, and even other parts of West Texas. Is such a heavy parasite load adversely affecting their reproductive success, immunity to disease, resistance to extreme climatic events and overall body condition and health? Probably so. But what is causing the heightened parasite load remains unanswered.

Pronghorn populations are historically somewhat cyclical, and all of us still carry great hope that their numbers will ultimately rebound in the Marfa basin. The area’s vast desert grasslands are certainly more complete with pronghorn in them than without them. So, keep all appendages crossed for their recovery.

Thank you for caring about Texas’ wild things and wild places. I hope you will get outdoors this fall with your family and enjoy them.

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