Forty-one pronghorns, commonly known as antelope, were released at two sites in the Sonoita-Patagonia area Wednesday — part of an effort to rebuild dwindling herds in Southeastern Arizona.
“In one day, we have significantly increased the number of pronghorn in the area,” said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “We released 24 just south of Elgin (which is southeast of Sonoita) and 17 more in the San Rafael Valley” southeast of Patagonia.
The pronghorns were captured by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish near Cimarron, N.M., and transported to Arizona by truck. In exchange, New Mexico will receive 60 Gould’s turkeys from Arizona, Hart said.
He said two pronghorns died while being transported from New Mexico — possibly as a result of “capture myopathy,” a type of muscle exertion that can lead to heart failure.
HERDS ON THE WANE
Pronghorn herds in Southeastern Arizona have been waning — with possible causes including drought, human encroachment on habitat, lack of travel corridors and predation by coyotes, Hart said.
He said the population in the Sonoita-Elgin area was estimated at 50 to 60 animals before Wednesday’s release of the pronghorns from New Mexico. The population in the San Rafael Valley had dwindled to no more than 15 to 20 animals before the release.
Wildlife officials decided to transplant pronghorns into the area because “they are a keystone species for the grasslands and historically ranged there,” Hart said. “As is our practice, we will restore native species to their historic range wherever possible.”
Habitat improvements, including the refurbishing of water catchments and modification of fencing to ease passage by pronghorns, were supported with grant funding obtained by the Arizona Antelope Foundation, Hart said.
“There has been an effort over the past two years to reduce the coyote population” in the pronghorn habitat, Hart said. “Coyotes are the main predators on pronghorns.”
Coyotes have been killed by shooting or trapping, he said, “and the survival of pronghorn lambs has increased markedly because of controlling coyotes.”
Hart said he couldn’t provide an estimate of the number of coyotes killed in the area over the past two years.
Rich Small, a member of the Friends of Wild Animals group, which has opposed the killing of mountain lions to protect bighorn sheep in the Catalina Mountains, voiced strong disapproval of the coyote killing.
“For a state agency to kill one species in favor of another — especially when the pronghorn are what they call game animals for hunting — is not a good biological science program,” Small said.
“The problem is that these predators (coyotes) are not only eating the game animals, they also control other populations such as rodents and rabbits,” Small said. “When Game and Fish steps in and starts messing with predators by killing them off, the results can be detrimental to the whole system.”