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Q&A: Tracking Pronghorn

Atop the Verde River aquifer sits one of Arizona’s big open grasslands, a relatively roadless area which supports Arizona’s last, large herd of pronghorn.

The area—called the Big Chino Valley, outside of Prescott—is also home to one of the state’s most vibrant cattle-ranching communities.

And a new alliance is working to save the land that sustains both the pronghorn and the ranchers. The Big Chino Pronghorn Partnership (.pdf, 39 kb) is a collaborative effort between Big Chino Valley Ranchers, The Nature Conservancy and other conservation partners in the valley.

Together, they are working to create "movement maps" of the pronghorn by collaring pronghorn and tracking their movements by satellite. The data will help landowners and land-use planners to better site roads and other development projects. spoke with Heather Reading, field representative in land and water protection for The Nature Conservancy's North America Region, about what it takes to track one of the fastest land mammals on Earth.
“Arizona's last, big pronghorn herd roams over one of the most important aquifers in the state, so protecting this herd means protecting water for people and nature."

- Heather Reading, field representative for The Nature Conservancy

What does it mean to map a pronghorn herd?

Heather Reading:

Pronghorn need to roam. Roads, poorly-planned development and other infrastructure stop them dead in their tracks. You can see that in our first year of pronghorn mapping, where all the dots bunch up by paved roads.

So, mapping lets you turn pronghorn into "dots"? How does it work?

Heather Reading:

Area ranchers allow the Big Chino Partnership to capture and collar pronghorn. To date we’ve collared 24. We do this using the best veterinary science available, darting the animals by helicopter with a mild sedative, collaring them and then protecting them until they are back to normal. We then track them via satellite.

What do the dots on the map mean?

Heather Reading:

Each dot represents one pronghorn. Collectively, they show us how the animals move through this big open land. This is important because if paved roads are planned, we can show the road planners where to create migration passages for the pronghorn.

Why do you think the ranchers want to help you?

Heather Reading:

The ranchers know so much about this area, and they are intrigued to learn more about the pronghorn. The ranchers now see them up close and over the years. But no one can understand how they move over time without this level of technology.

Many people are fascinated by pronghorn. Why do you think this is so?

Heather Reading:

The longer I study pronghorn, the more amazed I am by them. Pronghorn evolved to escape an ancient, North American cheetah, and even today they can outrun an African cheetah over long distances. They are built for speed. With eyes larger than their brains, they can see almost as far as a peregrine falcon can – up to four miles. They can run across a football field in three seconds flat.

What is your vision for how pronghorn maps can help the Big Chino Valley?

Heather Reading:

The vision of the Big Chino Pronghorn Partnership is to protect these open lands that have been so carefully cared for by generations of ranchers. If we can protect the Big Chino Valley and save it from fragmentation, then we save wildlife, ways of life, and water for people and nature.

Heather Reading is a field representative in land and water protection for The Nature Conservancy. Based in the Verde Program field office, she is a Chino Valley native, working with local land owners to secure land and waters for generations to come.

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