The Arizona Game and Fish Department released 30 pronghorn antelope Tuesday into a grassy field about 65 miles southwest of Tucson to bolster the population of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
The new additions will more than double the size of the existing herd, which numbered about 20 animals after years of efforts to restore the once-common species there.
“There used to be hundreds in the Altar Valley” before the native population went extinct, said Game and Fish spokesman Mark Hart.
The five dollars and 25 hinds released Tuesday were collected from a much larger group of about 200 animals in the San Bernardino Valley northeast of Douglas.
Two of the bucks and eight of the does now wear tracking collars so game officials can see where they’re going and how they’re using the landscape.
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Hart said the collars are designed to last two or three years and then automatically release when their batteries are depleted.
The transplanted animals will most likely live out their lives in the 117,464-acre sanctuary north of Sasabe, but “it’s kind of up to them,” he said.
The pronghorns were caught in nets fired from a low-flying helicopter, then flown to a staging area along State Route 80 south of the Chiricahua Mountains about 10 miles east of the Arizona-New Mexico border.
The animals were blindfolded to keep them calm, examined, and then loaded into trailers for the roughly 200-mile drive to the Altar Valley.
Bad weather delayed the catch, Hart said. “On Monday we had to stop our activities because it started snowing on snow.”
Despite their common name, pronghorn antelopes are not antelopes at all. They are much more closely related to giraffes and okapis than to the true antelopes and gazelles of Africa and Asia, although they fill the same grassland niche.
Tens of millions of pronghorns once roamed the vast plains of North America, but by the 1920s their numbers had been reduced to less than 15,000 due to rampant hunting and habitat loss.
The total population has since recovered to about 1 million, thanks to widespread conservation efforts, although three subspecies are still threatened with extinction, including the desert-dwelling Sonoran pronghorn found along the US-Mexico border in southwestern Arizona.
The most common pronghorn variety, as released on Tuesday, is mostly found in the northern third of the state, though southeastern Arizona is now home to about 600 of the animals.
One of the most successful repopulation efforts to date is in the area around Sonoita and Elgin, where the population has increased from less than 100 to more than 300 pronghorns.
Hart said additional animals have been moved to the area from New Mexico and elsewhere in Arizona to improve the genetic mix. At the same time, Game and Fish worked with local landowners to improve the habitat by installing new waterholes and tanks, removing mesquite trees to open up the grasslands, and modifying more than 100 miles of barbed wire fencing to allow pronghorns to squeeze underneath without getting stuck.
Arizona allows hunters to catch about 500-700 pronghorns each year from some parts of the state, but not in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
“The herd is too small to hunt there,” Hart said.