Opening Weekend for Pronghorn and Pheasants

A flashback to 2017. A happy Kiri and a limit of pheasants.

Frosty nights and mornings are an urgent reminder to us that the seasons are changing. We haven’t yet had a major snowstorm, unlike last year when we had heavy snow in mid-September. Still, the days are getting shorter and winter is coming.

Another reminder is that the pheasant and general pronghorn antelope seasons will open this Saturday, October 6.

This weekend’s opener will send many hunters across Montana’s prairies and uplands in search of North America’s fastest quadruped, a truly unique native of the west. It’s an animal with a confusing set of names, as well as a complex set of genetics.

Montana’s hunting regulations refer to the critter as antelope. Most biologists would prefer to simply call it a pronghorn. Captain William Clark of the Lewis & Clark expedition was one of the first Europeans to describe the pronghorn when he shot one in what became Nebraska, describing it in his journal as a “Buck Goat,” going on to say that, “he is more like the Antillope or Gazelle of Africa than any other species of Goat.”

The pronghorn is the last of the Antilocapridae, a group of 12 species that existed in prehistoric times. Scientists believe there were still three other species that existed when humans first came to North America, but the pronghorn is the only one that survived to modern times. Curiously, the pronghorn’s closest living relatives, the giraffe and okapi, are in Africa.

Pronghorns are a success story of modern wildlife management. At the close of the Frontier, pronghorn numbers were down to around 13,000, and many observers feared that pronghorn were destined for extinction, though members of the Boone and Crockett Club advocated for measures to save the pronghorn. Key to the survival of the pronghorn was designation of large tracts of public lands with good habitat for pronghorn. Current numbers of pronghorn are estimated at between 500,000 and a million.

Montana’s pronghorns are widespread much of Montana, ranging from the wide-open prairies of eastern Montana to the foothills of the Rockies. The pronghorn season runs through November 11.

If pronghorns are an ancient native of North America, the pheasant is a relatively recent immigrant. Pheasants are native to China, though they have been brought to many parts of the world. There are many varieties of pheasants, and even the modern chicken is descended from ancient pheasants.

There were early attempts to bring pheasants to the U.S., going as far back as 1733. Our first president, George Washington, had some golden pheasants on his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.

The most significant introduction of pheasants was in 1881, when Owen Dickerson Denny, the U.S. Consul General to Shanghai, China, shipped 60 Chinese pheasants to Port Townsend, Washington. That first attempt mostly failed, but Denny sent more birds in 1882 and 1884, and pheasants took hold in the Willamette valley of Oregon. Since then, pheasants have been introduced to 40 states, though the nation’s heartland states, including Montana, are where pheasants seem to do best.

While pheasants are a relatively recent immigrant, they found a niche in many states at a time when the vast native prairies of the heartland were converted to agriculture. Pheasants readily adapted to farm country and thrived, filling a void when those same changes sent prairie chickens into a downward spiral in most of their range.

Pheasants were my introduction to the world of hunting and after over 60 years of chasing them, from the family farm in southern Minnesota, to Iowa, North and South Dakota and Montana, they’re still one of my favorites.

While some people like to hunt in a group of hunters marching down a field, I prefer a smaller team, usually just my dog and myself, wandering across the landscape in search of pheasant scent and the thrilling sound and sight of a rooster pheasant taking to the air with a rush of wings, often cackling and scolding us for our intrusion.

If everything works, we’re rewarded with a beautiful, gaudy bird and a delicious dinner. Life is good.

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