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Glenn Tenorio of the Santa Ana Pueblo Department of Natural Resources stands clear as pronghorn does bolt for freedom on Santa Ana Mesa after being rounded up in northeastern New Mexico earlier in the day.
Photo credit: —Bill Diven

Pronghorn release boosts pueblo wildlife program

~Signpost Staff

When the trailer doors opened, dozens of pronghorns bolted for freedom, trading the plains of northeast New Mexico for the open spaces of Santa Ana Pueblo.

The releases at three locations on January 31 are the last in a series intended to create a sustainable population in a land where the animals, which play an important role in tribal culture, had disappeared. A total of ten bucks and 29 does were set free first beside the Jemez River near the old pueblo and later at two locations atop Santa Ana Mesa.

"It essentially doubles our pronghorn population on the pueblo, and it brings in new genetics in the populations," said Glenn Harper of the Santa Ana Department of Natural Resources.

About one hundred people, including dozens of school children, witnessed the first release into what is known as the lowland plains herd. Those animals can occasionally be seen from U.S. Highway 550 north of Rio Rancho. For the others, it meant a slow drive into the pueblo backcountry.

The pronghorns, commonly called antelope, although they belong to a different species, are part of a larger effort the pueblo began about twenty years ago to reintroduce wildlife and repair damaged habitat by removing invasive plants in favor of native grasses. Since then, wild turkeys have settled in and can be found along the Rio Grande. The first pronghorns rounded up by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish arrived in 2009-2010.

Tribal elders told wildlife managers that the pueblo had gone forty years without pronghorns, which play a role in traditions and ceremonies. The pueblo covers 79,000 acres extending from Bernalillo and Rio Rancho into the Jemez Mountains.

Camera traps at new water sources have captured images of 67 species of small and large game including bears, mountain lions, elk and deer, according to the pueblo. The pueblo has worked with the state Game Commission on the releases contributing to the cost of the roundups with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Tribal Wildlife Grant Program.

Staff from the Natural Resources Department joined Game and Fish personnel in rounding up a total of 135 pronghorns on the Express UU Bar Ranch, a cattle operation near Cimarron. A helicopter herded the animals into a funnel of fencing where staff on foot could then drive them into an enclosed corral.

Veterinarians, Game and Fish biologists, and tribal staff then caught individual animals by hand and worked them through a process that included vaccinations. The game department reported 66 pronghorns were later released on federal Bureau of Land Management range near the Capitan Mountains northwest of Roswell while 25 bucks were turned loose back onto the ranch.

Radio collars on some of the pronghorns will allow the biologists to track their movements and survival.

Forty animals made the three-hour drive to the pueblo, but one doe suffered a broken leg during the ride or the rush to get out of the trailer. She was carried a short distance from the handful of people observing the release and euthanized by a tribal police officer. Because of the vaccinations, the animal couldn't be butchered for food. Instead Glenn Tenorio took it to another location for a final ceremony.

"I'm just going to send it off to the spirit world," he said.

Santa Ana has been aiming for an initial pronghorn population of one hundred, which tribal officials citing scientific literature said is the minimum needed to sustain the herds. The recent release had been delayed while the pueblo and the Game Commission worked out an agreement that may allow for future hunting permits for a limited number of nontribal visitors when and if approved by the tribal council.

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