Conservation team bringing pronghorn back from brink of extinction

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Schneider
  • AFCEC Public Affairs
When severe drought conditions in Arizona nearly decimated the endangered U.S. Sonoran pronghorn population in 2002, there was no time to waste.

"We were at a population estimate of about 130 in 2000 and it declined down to an estimate of 21 in 2002," said Jim Atkinson, Sonoran pronghorn recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "That was our wakeup call in Arizona, in the United States, of 'Hey, we could lose this animal if we continue to do nothing.'"

While military ranges and wildlife sanctuaries don't seem to go hand-in-hand, military installations are oftentimes a place of refuge for wildlife populations like the pronghorn, said Kevin Porteck, Air Force natural resources subject matter expert at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. 

"The Barry M. Goldwater Range is home to the bulk of the population of Sonoran pronghorn antelope in North America, which is not an uncommon scenario," Porteck said. "In many cases, our military installations become the last refuge for endangered species, especially as development encroaches along the perimeters of our installations. In many cases, the species have nowhere to go but on our installations."

With the population crash in 2002, measures were taken to safeguard and build up the remaining population, to include supplying the animals with water sources and food, as well as constructing two semi-captive breeding pens; one at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in 2004 and another at the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in 2011.

"The greatest threat is fawn survival," said Daniel Garcia, 56th Range Management Office Environmental Sciences chief at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.  "In Arizona, the fawns are weaned when it is blistering hot with no rain for months. The intent with the breeding pens is to get the fawns through their first summer. When we turn them loose, they have graduated from the 'headstart program' and are ready to go."

The semi-captive breeding program just completed its tenth year of operation and the annual release was held in December.

The annual event was supported by the Air Force and several partnering agencies including Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Luke Air Force Base in Phoenix, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Yuma and Wellton Border Patrol Sectors; Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and the Phoenix Zoo.

In addition to the breeding program, steps are also taken to protect the animals during routine military training activities, said Aaron Alvidrez, wildlife biologist at the 56th Range Management Office.

Biologists monitor the locations of pronghorn in known habitat areas prior to missions taking place - when pronghorn are present, training and inert ordnance targets within one kilometer of sightings, and high explosive hills within 1.5 kilometers of sightings, are closed for the day, Alvidrez said.

The efforts have had a positive impact, with the current population hovering around 202 animals -- increasing more than ten-fold since 2002.

"The recovery efforts take a lot of hard work and teamwork," Alvidrez said. "We are really starting to see our efforts pay off."

While much progress had been made, the recovery team recognizes more work remains to be done. Future efforts include engaging in an international partnership with Mexico to capture and breed the Sonoran pronghorn for reintroduction into suitable habitats and the establishment of a third population in the near future, Atkinson said.

"We're drafting a binational recovery plan, which includes the herds in Mexico, and we are working with our partners here in the U.S. and Mexico to set criteria for the population in terms of the numbers that we'd like to establish," Atkinson said.

Removing the animal from the endangered species list is the ultimate goal.

"We're looking to downlist and eventually delist," Alvidrez said. "Protecting this species, while sustaining our military mission activities, is a key priority for us."