Of Pronghorns and Petroglyphs
Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge
BY JAMES JOHNSTON
I was awestruck the first time I saw pronghorn antelope run. I startled a small herd at a remote watering hole in the far southeast corner of the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge — they jumped as a group, turned in mid-air and bolted away at mind-boggling speed, covering 15 or 20 feet in a single stride.
They were over-reacting. Had I shed my pack and been wearing my running shoes, and if I were Carl Lewis, I might have been able to pursue them through the low sage at speeds approaching 25 miles per hour for no farther than a couple hundred yards. The pronghorns accelerated to top speed almost instantly and disappeared over a low hill a half-mile away in about 30 seconds — 60 miles per hour.
Pronghorns are excessively fast. Their fastest predator, the wolf (the last one in Oregon was shot not far from Hart Mountain in 1963), can do about 40 mph for very short distances. It wasn’t until I read Tim Flannery’s classic ecological history of North America, The Eternal Frontier, that I understood why pronghorns seem to have been over-designed. For millions of years they shared Oregon’s grassy steppes with cheetahs, the only land animal in the world faster than a North American pronghorn.
A cheetah-like cat, along with woolly mammoths, ground sloths, glyptodonts (picture an armadillo the size of Volkswagen Bug), horses, camels, and hundreds of other megafauna, fully 76 percent of large mammal species in North America, vanished in a cataclysmic extinction approximately 11,000 years ago. More on that later.
Pronghorn antelope are not actually antelope. There are more than 90 species of true antelope (of the family Bovidae) living in Europe, Asia and Africa. The pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) is a true North American native not found anywhere else, and, as far as anyone knows, unrelated to any other species. Take a good look at them — they are odd looking, with wicked, goat-like faces, thick black manes, broad cream-colored chests, brilliant white rumps visible for miles and bizarre crooked horns. They are the only animals in the world that shed their horns annually. (Deer and elk shed antlers, which are made of a bone-like substance. Horns are made out of keratin, the same stuff as your fingernails.)
The best place in Oregon for pronghorn viewing is the Hart Mountain National Antelope refuge east of Lakeview: 275,000 acres of pretty green hills, sagebrush flats, aspen groves and hot springs. The refuge is open to hiking, and there are phenomenal day hikes and backpacking adventures to be had in any direction from the headquarters compound in the center of the refuge. There are no trails; instead, you simply follow old jeep paths or walk between the sagebrush. A good bet is to park at Hot Springs campground (the hot springs aren’t that hot) and hike southwest to 8,000-ft. Warner Peak.
Hart Mountain Refuge is about a six-hour drive from Eugene. To get there, drive towards Burns on Hwy. 20 and head south on Hwy. 395 at Riley. About five miles before you enter Lakeview, turn east on Hwy. 140. In 16 miles veer left onto Road 3-13 for 20 miles to Plush and then turn onto Road 3-12 for 24 miles to the refuge headquarters. The last part of this road is a well-maintained gravel surface suitable for passenger cars. Buy a map!
The one spot not to be missed on the refuge is Petroglyph Lake. On your way from Plush to the refuge headquarters you’ll drive a steep grade that tops out on a broad plateau. Park near a jeep trail on the left, not far east of this point (2.4 miles before the refuge headquarters). Hike north along the rim for about two miles to a 6,000-foot outcropping. To the east, about a mile off, you’ll see two lakes. The closest and largest is Petroglyph Lake. A rocky wall on the east shore is covered with hundreds of ancient petroglyphs, which can be puzzled and pondered over for days in this wild, wind-swept landscape.
Some of the images are literal — stick figures waving bows at indistinct ungulate species. Others are highly figurative, alien-looking amalgams of people and animals. These figures are a total mystery. Neither the Northern Paiute, who lived in the Hart Mountain country until the American invasion in the late 1800s, nor any other nearby native tribe is known to have created petroglyphs, and we must assume that they are a vestige of an earlier, vanished culture.
Flannery summarizes the overwhelming body of evidence that the migration into North America of the Clovis people, wielding fearsome, foot-long spear points, was responsible for the extinction of large mammals in North America between 10,800 and 11,500 years ago. In 2005, however, researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory presented equally compelling evidence that climate change initiated by the impact of debris from an enormous supernova was the real culprit in the mass extinctions. The debate continues. Our emerging understanding of “trophic cascades,” which explain structural changes to biological communities due to multivariant dynamic interactions of hunting, climate and habitat change, may provide the answer.
Flannery’s book and most others suggest that the Clovis people were the first humans to inhabit North America. But two weeks ago, UO researchers announced that they had discovered unequivocal evidence of human habitation in a cave 60 miles west of Hart Mountain that dates back an astonishing 14,400 years — thousands of year before any known record of Clovis culture.
Who made the petroglyphs? What do they mean? Why did the cheetah go extinct, but not the antelope? What kinds of people and animals have roamed the Hart Mountain refuge over the millennia? What is the fate of our species — and others — in North America?
Some of the petroglyphs are of turtle-like creatures with large intelligent eyes that seem to look back at the viewer with an inscrutable, Mona Lisa-like expression, as though they have some funny answers for us. In the distance, pronghorn nibble alertly on sage and forbs, cocking their heads in unison at any sudden movements from hikers, ready to outrun any trouble.