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Antelope Play, Multiply and Irritate the Ranchers

Pronghorn reach 2,400 on an Oregon range after a 1994 grazing ban. Cattlemen say the end of a seven-year drought deserves the blame.

August 17, 2003|Gillian Flaccus | Associated Press Writer

HART MOUNTAIN NATIONAL ANTELOPE REFUGE, Ore. — The only car for miles rumbles in the distance, and 50 pairs of black-tipped ears flick forward in nervous anticipation.

The vehicle draws closer and now the pronghorn antelope are on the run, surging across the flat plain with necks outstretched and mouths gaping.

Sightings of pronghorn have become commonplace at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge 10 years after the population had dipped significantly. A helicopter survey in late July counted more than 2,400 animals, the most antelope ever recorded since the refuge was founded in 1936.

But success hasn't come without consequences.

The refuge banned cattle grazing in 1994 after a bitter dispute with ranchers. It remains one of the largest cattle-free tracts of public land in the West.

With antelope numbers at an all-time high, the refuge once more finds itself at the center of a high-stakes debate between environmentalists who want to kick cattle off all federal land and ranchers desperate to stop them.

Environmental groups say banning cattle played a critical role in restoring a healthy antelope population, while ranchers dismiss the role of the cattle ban and instead point to the end of a seven-year drought.

Refuge managers, caught in the middle, say there are no easy answers.

"We can show the difference between what we started with and what we have in the end. But to say for sure whether the most important factor was the removal of cattle -- you just can't prove that," said Mike Nunn, project leader for the Sheldon-Hart Mountain Refuge Complex.

Located near the Oregon-Nevada border, the remote refuge sprawls across an 8,000-foot tabletop of rock that juts from a flat, sweeping expanse of hay fields and cattle meadows.

Franklin D. Roosevelt created the refuge -- about one-third the size of Rhode Island -- in 1936 as a "last stronghold" for the then-dwindling pronghorn, a creature the size of a small deer with elegant, heart-shaped horns, a black-and-white muzzle and a running speed of up to 60 mph.

Ranchers grazed sheep and cattle there starting in the mid-1800s, and refuge managers say that over 150 years, the ecosystem changed from high grasses and plush streambeds to ankle-high sagebrush.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, decided in 1994 that grazing didn't fit with the refuge's mission and banned it despite angry protests from families who had grazed thousands of cattle on the land for generations. The refuge's cattle-free status still rankles in remote Lake County, population 7,000, where ranching is the major industry.

"Fish and Wildlife decided they wanted to get out of the cattle business and they did," said John O'Keeffe, a rancher who once grazed 700 head on the refuge. "There wasn't any justification for eliminating the cattle."

But Nunn and his chief biologist, Mike Dunbar, believe that the ban on grazing was the main reason for the antelopes' revival. Without cattle, Nunn and his staff say they have been able to burn 22,000 acres of sagebrush. The burning has caused an environmental rebirth on the land, in many cases returning it to its natural state and benefiting pronghorn, refuge managers say.

Without the cover of the ground-hugging sagebrush, populations of small rodents and birds favored by coyotes -- the antelopes' only remaining predator -- have dropped, meaning that fewer coyotes survive to eat newborn fawns.

A 1998 survey showed flowering plants, a preferred pronghorn treat, increased by 300% in certain areas.

But ranchers who suffered when the refuge shut them out say eliminating cattle has nothing to do with the recent pronghorn upswing.

They point to a seven-year drought that ended in 1994, just about the time cattle left the refuge, and say several ranchers had already stopped grazing cattle in the mid-1990s because the forage was so scarce.

Pronghorn counts hit a low the same year that cattle were banned, which coincided with the worst of the drought, O'Keeffe said.

"If you point to 1998 numbers as opposed to 1988 numbers, you're looking at 10 inches of rain instead of 2," said O'Keeffe, who is also Oregon director of the Public Lands Council and vice-chairman of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. "In the desert, that's a big ... difference."

No comprehensive studies have been done to explain the relationship between grazing and antelope -- a criticism of both ranchers and environmentalists.

Nunn and Dunbar said such an exhaustive survey would cost the refuge at least $1.5 million when it must already pillage its general budget for the smaller scale research it now conducts.

The two are also acutely aware that the antelope population could plummet as quickly as it shot up. Despite changes in the ecosystem, jackrabbit and sage grouse populations have increased recently, which could foreshadow a rise in coyote numbers and a subsequent decline in surviving pronghorn fawns.

A drop in antelope numbers could give leverage to ranchers, who want to see cattle return someday. And no one is sure what will happen if and when the next drought hits.

Nunn and Dunbar will present a more specific antelope management plan to the Department of the Interior this fall that could call for killing a "very small" number of coyote if the pronghorn population drops dramatically, Dunbar said.

A similar coyote proposal in 1995 drew 1,300 public comments, threats of a lawsuit and angry full-page newspaper ads by animal-rights groups.

On this sweltering July day, however, antelope are plentiful. Coming over a crest in the road, Nunn slams on the brakes. He draws in his breath at a herd of 25 antelope feeding lazily in a lush, sinuous streambed.

"Aren't they beautiful?" he said. "That right there is why I do what I do."

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