Becoming pronghorn: an essay

Remembering wildlife biologist James Yoakum

  • Pronghorn antelope grazing.

    Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife
  • The late James Yoakum, a prominent pronghorn researcher.

    Carol Ann Bassett

Jim Yoakum peers through a spotting scope across a broad sagebrush valley. Here at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, a pronghorn doe has just squatted into a familiar position, about to give birth, Yoakum observes. As a legendary pronghorn biologist, Yoakum knows about these animals; he has spent more than seven decades roaming this fault-block range in southeastern Oregon. He understands the language of the pronghorn antelope, its flared nostrils and the sleek curve of its haunches in flight.

Soon, a tiny fawn plops from the doe's belly and lands on the ground. "Here comes another!" he exclaims. Within minutes, the twins rise on wobbly legs, shake off the afterbirth, and begin suckling. They must gain strength as quickly as they can and learn to run almost immediately to escape hungry coyotes, cougars, bobcats and golden eagles. It's an instinct hard-wired into their genes.

Yoakum, who is wearing loose jeans and a camouflage jacket, continues watching. Seven decades of riding horses on this mountain have left his legs bowed. Today, he uses a walking stick, wears hearing aids and breathes oxygen from a respirator. Even as Yoakum observes the miracle of birth, he knows that his own life is waning.

James Solomon Yoakum was born June 15, 1926, in Templeton, Calif., son of a hunter-father. As a student at Oregon State, he would help his professor monitor pronghorn fawns on Hart Mountain. Yoakum's dog, a Labrador retriever named Tad, assisted by pinning them down and licking the sweet mother's milk off their muzzles. When Yoakum graduated in 1957 with a master's degree in wildlife management, the Bureau of Land Management hired him as the agency's very first wildlife biologist. During his 28-year career with the BLM, Yoakum was a steadfast advocate for wildlife conservation and habitat restoration. His book, Pronghorn: Ecology and Management, is a 903-page masterpiece containing nearly everything that's currently known about his beloved species.

Antilocapra americana is the swiftest mammal in North America; it can run faster than 60 miles an hour. Its namesake refuge, the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge and its sister refuge just over the border in Nevada, the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, are classic sagebrush-steppe Great Basin landscapes -- perfect pronghorn habitat.

I first heard about Yoakum when I volunteered to dismantle barbed wire fences with the Oregon Natural Desert Association on nearby Steens Mountain -- the first designated "cow-free" wilderness in the United States. We were giving the land back to the pronghorn, without boundaries. In 2010, I traveled to Hart Mountain to meet up with Yoakum; Bill Marlett, the former executive director of the association; Marlett's wife, Terry Gloeckler; their friend, Matt Holmes, and Yoakum's friend and colleague, Jorge Cancino, a pronghorn biologist from La Paz, Mexico, who studies the endangered Sonoran pronghorn (Antilocapra americana sonoriensis).

It's May, and an unexpected snowstorm has dusted the hillsides white, burying our tents at Hot Springs Campground. A frigid wind rips through the valley. At dinnertime, we wrap Yoakum in sleeping bags before a blazing fire, and someone pours him a warming cup of bourbon. I ask Yoakum about his relationship with the pronghorn.

"I still belong to the pronghorn family," he replies, his face ruddy in the leaping flames.  "I talk to them every day, practically."

"What do they tell you?"

"They tell me what they like and don't like. They don't like fences. They don't like roads. They don't like railroads. They tell me what they like to eat. They tell me they want lots of water. They don't like to be too close to cattle, because sometimes they get diseases from them. They get diseases from domestic sheep, and they have problems with wild horses that eat the same food they like. The adult doe must provide enough food to maintain her health and support two fawns." The doe bears twins, he explains, because normally only one fawn survives predation. "They tell me these things."

But on Hart Mountain, coyotes and eagles weren't hampering pronghorn recovery; instead, herds of cattle were competing for limited pronghorn food. Yoakum, a maverick in biological diversity, believed the species could be restored successfully on the mountain. In the 1990s, he worked with conservationists and won a lawsuit to kick the cows off the refuge. Without them, grasses and forbs flourished, and so did pronghorn and sage grouse. Last year, the pronghorn population reached its greatest number ever -- a rise from about 3,700 animals in the 1990s to over 6,200 pronghorn in the Hart and Sheldon refuges.

Back in camp, Yoakum ticks off the tasks he still wants to accomplish, then adds: "I have to live 84 more years. I have lots of things to do." But Yoakum never got the chance to return to his beloved Hart Mountain. He died Nov. 20, 2012, at age 86. This summer, Marlett and other friends, who shared and still share Yoakum's dreams, will scatter his ashes where his spirit can forever behold the galloping herds.

Carol Ann Bassett is a professor of environmental writing and the author of three books, two of them finalists for the Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction, including Galapagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin's Cradle of Evolution.

The University of Nevada's Special Collections Department has created a $25,000 matching fund to make Yoakum's lifetime materials available to the public. To contribute, contact Millie Mitchell, director of development, at [email protected] or call 775-682-5682.

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