Mary and I pedal our mountain bikes along the Old Yellowstone Trail, the gravel road that snakes between Gardiner and Corwin Springs. As we slow down to bounce through a washboarded section, we glance to our left and are surprised to discover four pronghorn calves, heads just visible above the grass, resting about 30 yards away. We would have zoomed right by them if we were in a car. Excited, we stop and dismount. All four fawns notice us. One arises on wobbly legs; the others stay put and stare.
Since pronghorn does usually have two fawns, we have stumbled upon what is called a nursery group. Two does have bedded their calves together and gone off to graze. According to the National Park Service (NPS), fawns like these spend their first three weeks hiding in vegetation, interacting with their mothers for only 20-25 minutes a day. The mothers nurse, groom, and lead the fawns to food and water, as well as keep predators away. At this age, the fawns are an enticing meal for coyotes, bobcats, wolves, bears, and golden eagles.
Though we don’t see the does, these fawns are not alone. A pronghorn buck—also staring at us—stands just a few yards away from them. This intrigues us: Is he guarding the nursery? Or is he just an older solitary male who happens to be nearby?
Leaning against our bikes, we stand captivated by the calves’ large eyes—so gentle, so inviting—and oh so good for spotting predators. According to the NPS, pronghorns have a 320-degree field of vision. So, without turning their heads they should be able to spot a predator trying to sneak up from the side.
Those eyes are just one life-saving adaptation this species has made while evolving in North America over the last 20 million years. Compared to their body size, pronghorns have a large windpipe, heart, and lungs that allow them to suck in lots of air. Each leg has two cushioned toes that act as shock absorbers. Add to this their light bone structure, and you’ve got an animal that’s built to sprint at 45-50 miles per hour—that’s faster than any predator in Yellowstone. Such speed was a life saver long ago when these fawns’ ancestors had to outrun a now extinct American cheetah.
Though pronghorn succeeded in outlasting that cheetah, they have not fared so well with humans. When Euro-Americans arrived in the West, pronghorn were as about as abundant as bison—30 to 35 million graced the countryside. Now, about a half a million survive, most in Montana and Wyoming.
This valley we are cycling through exemplifies the impact of human settlement. In 1871, a year before Yellowstone became the world’s first national park, homesteaders arrived here. Within 30 years, much of the vegetation that pronghorn and other grazers depend upon had been removed by settlers, determined to eke out a living. While the settlers plowed, planted, and irrigated, and harvested alfalfa and oats and grazed cattle, pronghorn went elsewhere in search of natural vegetation. Those that stayed were hunted.
By 1883 a town called Cinnabar had sprouted here as well, taking more land from wildlife. The town died a few years later when the Northern Pacific Railroad extended its line to nearby Gardiner.
In the early 1930s, the prospects for pronghorn improved—as may have the prospects for ranchers financially strapped by the Great Depression—when Congress authorized buying ranch land to expand Yellowstone’s northern boundary and acquire more winter pronghorn range. Earlier today, Mary and I cycled past three, large, fenced plots—part of that 1930s addition—where the NPS excludes grazers and works to undo the damage those industrious farmers did when they replaced native plants with crops that are less nutritious for wildlife.
Until about 1950, even with the ranches gone, pronghorn still fell to culling by park officials that feared overgrazing.
Thus, human impact reduced the Yellowstone pronghorn herd from about 1,000 animals to 350-400. The NPS warns that this small population could be wiped out by a severe winter or disease.
Even without a natural disaster, two of the four fawns we are admiring today will likely perish before their first birthday. The two survivors will grow up facing the problem of ongoing development of private land north of the park. Fenced-off land is troublesome in the winter when deep snow makes grazing difficult elsewhere in Yellowstone and drives hungry grazers to this valley where there is less snow to contend with.
Fortunately, these fawns and other grazers now have more winter land available. The addition came from a surprising source: the Royal Teton Ranch, which is owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), an organization that got off to a rough start with the park and its other neighbors.
In a 2005 article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Scott McMillion writes that after the CUT bought its first property near Yellowstone in 1981, “…church leaders butted heads with environmental groups, politicians, anti-cult groups, state regulators and officials from Yellowstone National Park, which was next door to the church’s 12,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch. There were lawsuits with county, state and federal governments. Church officials were arrested on weapons charges.”
But by 1999 times and relationships had changed. McMillion reports that In August of that year representatives of the CUT, politicians, environmental groups, and the NPS came together in a meadow along the Old Yellowstone Trail and celebrated the “…exchange of 6,300 acres of church land and a conservation easement on another 1,500 acres for $13 million in federal money.” This wasn’t necessarily altruism by the CUT; the church had fallen on hard times and needed money—perhaps like those Depression-era ranchers who sold out to the federal government in the 1930s.
The four fawns have now settled back into the grass, heads down, just the tips of their big ears showing. It’s time for Mary and me to move on. Smiling at the good fortune of this sighting, we mount up, pedal away, and soon leave the park.
Just north of Beattie Gulch trailhead, we cycle past fencepost after fencepost standing tall with no wire or boards connecting them. There’s nothing to stop an animal’s passage. But occasionally a post sports a bright yellow sign that reads “No Trespassing. RTR.” While we aren’t allowed onto this part of the Royal Teton Ranch, those four fawns can graze here. And so can other pronghorn, bison, and elk in search of much-needed winter grazing land, thanks to hard financial times, efforts by the park, and two land conservation deals.
Rick Lamplugh lives near the north gate of Yellowstone and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter’s Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.