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Meet ’n’ Greet Oregon’s Greatest Athlete

Get to know the pronghorn, the fastest mammal on foot in the western hemisphere.
December 4, 2019
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Only the African cheetah can outpace the pronghorn, the second-fastest land animal in the world. Pronghorn spring into motion with easy grace, able to accelerate to speeds of more than 60 miles per hour. And while the cheetah might win a sprint, the pronghorn would dominate in a distance race: With a 30-foot stride and exceptional endurance, they could dust a marathon in 45 minutes.

The pronghorn’s prowess has captivated humans for centuries. Early settlers wrote of them as some astounding sort of deer, gazelle, sheep or — our favorite — the “speed goat.” Even today, they’re commonly called antelope. In fact, the pronghorn is none of these. True Oregon natives, pronghorn have roamed here for millions of years, the only species left in their zoological family, Antilocapridae. Their closest living relative is the giraffe.

A creature that zippy needs room to roam, and pronghorn find it at Hart Mountain. The immense fault-block ridge rises up abruptly from the sage-dusted plains of Southern Oregon near Lakeview, a region so vast, it’s known as the Oregon Outback.

You can lose your sense of scale here, where ephemeral lakes shimmer in the high-desert distance and gravel roads spiral off to the horizon. But your brain begins to calibrate the vastness as you steer up the long entrance road toward the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. From a mosaic of wetlands outside Plush, narrow switchbacks weave up the face of the escarpment, an ascent that gains more than 3,000 feet in less than 10 miles.

And then, just like that, you’re on top. A broad landscape of grasslands, folded hills and cottonwood-lined creeks stretches out for miles, rolling off gradually to the east in a blanket of silver-green sage.

Pronghorn (Photo by: Jak Wonderly / Travel Southern Oregon)

Home on the Range

It’s precisely the kind of environment where pronghorn thrive — grazing on woody shrubs, ranging through grassland and steppe. Tens of millions of them once roamed across North America. Yet by the late 1800s, over-hunting decimated their populations to near extinction. Hart Mountain, one of the last pronghorn strongholds, was established as a refuge in 1936 to protect the remnant herds and preserve the vast, open lands they required. Today the 278,000-acre refuge supports a population of about 1,500 pronghorn, along with more than 300 other species, including mule deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes and sage grouse.

True to its mission, the refuge caters more to pronghorn than people. The Visitor Center is a bare-bones operation, an unstaffed room with a few natural-history exhibits, drinking water and the last flush toilet you’ll find for miles. Built of quarried stone by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the Visitor Center and a smattering of other buildings make up the refuge headquarters.

It’s where you might find Refuge Manager Danielle Fujii-Doe. The daughter of a wildlife conservation officer, Fujii-Doe grew up in Hawaii, a childhood that “sparked my love for the outdoors and wildlife,” she says. Fujii-Doe went on to obtain a master’s degree and positions throughout the West with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I grew up in a very rural, remote area of Hawaii, and shockingly, Hart Mountain is kind of similar,” she says. “People come out here for the solitude. It’s a pretty remote refuge. It’s not a place where you’ll be driving down the road and decide to take a look. It has to be something you want to come and see.”

Beyond the headquarters, the refuge is indeed a pretty wild and primitive place. “We manage [the refuge] for the wildlife and their habitat,” Fujii-Doe remarks. “The refuge provides a kind of sanctuary for pronghorn, where they can give birth to their young and raise them undisturbed. We really want to keep the habitat intact.” Hart Mountain has no designated trails; instead, visitors are welcome to park their vehicles along one of the refuge roads and wander off to explore the landscape on foot.

Most passenger vehicles will be fine on the more than 100 miles of maintained gravel roads (assuming decent weather conditions — check with the refuge for updated information). The seasonal unmaintained roads are a different beast altogether. Don’t attempt them unless you have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle and know what to do if you get stuck. Better yet, explore these more remote routes with a horse, a bike or hiking boots. (Check out a rundown of experiences below.)

Pronghorn move through this rugged terrain with ease. “A most wonderful fleetness,” William Clark recorded in his journal when the Lewis and Clark Expedition encountered pronghorn in 1804, “more like the flight of birds than the movement of an earthly being.” Evasion is the pronghorn’s defense mechanism, coupling speed with extraordinary vision. About the size of deer, pronghorn possess a much greater heart and lung capacity, long limbs and lightweight bones for distance running, and padding in their hooves for shock absorption. Their large, protruding eyes, set wide on their head for optimal peripheral vision, are eight times stronger than a human’s. Catch sight of a distant pronghorn through your binoculars, and it’s undoubtedly already staring at you.

Pronghorn (Photo by: Jak Wonderly / Travel Southern Oregon)

How to Spot a “Speed Goat”

Pronghorn routinely graze out in the open and are fairly easy to spot, thanks to the broad bands of white that stripe their tawny coats. You have a good chance of seeing herds right from the road on Hart Mountain, especially in the sagebrush habitat prevalent in the eastern half of the refuge. Good bets are the Blue Sky Road that winds south from the Visitor Center and the Frenchglen Road that heads east. Your vehicle makes an effective blind — they’re less likely to bolt if you stay inside it. Like most wildlife, pronghorn are most active in early morning and evening, especially in the hotter months. When they’re lying down, their dark, curved horns can give them away, rising above the tall grass like parentheses.

Spring and fall provide the best wildlife viewing on the refuge, with temperate days and cool evenings ideal for enjoying the region’s many hot springs. Spring brings the added opportunity to see the spectacle of male sage grouse strutting and whirling about in their outrageous courtship dance. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, too, although they’re notoriously difficult to spot, since they tend to stay in the high terrain along Hart Mountain’s steep western side.

Sage Grouse (Photo by Jak Wonderly / Travel Southern Oregon)
Big Horn Sheep (Photo by: Alamy Stock)

Pronghorn coexist rather peaceably with the other animals that make their home on the refuge, able to outrun them all. Only young fawns are vulnerable to predation by coyotes and eagles, but they quickly pick up the pace, springing along at 20 miles per hour within a week or so. “Pronghorn are just amazing to watch when they run,” Fujii-Doe marvels. “I did aerial surveys in the summer by helicopter. We were probably going about 50 or 60 miles per hour — and the pronghorn were running faster.” Aside from humans, healthy adult pronghorn face few predators anywhere; their speed and endurance are evolutionary gifts from more than 12,000 years ago, when they were preyed upon by the North American cheetah.

Weather, though, can pose a challenge. Deep snows make grazing difficult and thwart the pronghorn’s speed advantage. As seasons change, herds may migrate 100 miles or more — among the farthest of any land mammal in the western hemisphere, second only to arctic caribou. Hart Mountain pronghorn often migrate south into the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, across the Nevada border southeast of Lakeview. Together, the two refuges provide about 1 million acres of protected pronghorn habitat.

Come spring, as the snow dissolves and the desert greenery brightens, the herds reliably return to Hart Mountain. These venerable Oregon locals will again stroll and graze through the grasslands and bounce across the horizon with their remarkable grace—a living link to an ancient past, keeping the wild in our wide-open landscapes.

Hart Mountain Hot Springs (Photo by: Alan Majchrowicz)

Experience the Refuge

Sleep Among Hot Springs: Four miles south of the Hart Mountain Visitor Center, Hot Springs Campground lives up to its name, with a couple dozen sweet creekside sites and two hot-springs pools available for soaking. A rock-and-concrete structure surrounds the 99-degree main pool, large enough for about six people. The other is undeveloped and a couple of degrees warmer. Campground facilities are rustic, with pit toilets but no potable water.

Hike, Bike, Horseback: All are good ways to explore the miles of unmaintained refuge roads. Consider the challenging but rewarding 18-mile loop from Hot Springs and Boundary roads to Skyline Drive to Blue Sky Road. Keep in mind that biking is only permitted on roads open to motorized vehicles (check with the Visitor Center if you’re not sure).

Birding: At the base of Hart Mountain near Plush, the mosaic of dunes and lakes at Warner Wetlands attracts thousands of migrating birds in spring and fall. Facilities include a hiking trail to wildlife blinds and a 10-mile canoe trail.

Horned Lark (Photo by: Rick A. Brown)

Rockhounding: Hunt for Oregon sunstones, copper-hued feldspar crystals at the public collection area near Plush or with High Desert Gems & Minerals at its Spectrum Mine.

More Camping/Lodging: In addition to Hot Springs Campground, there are three other rustic campgrounds on the refuge, including a horse camp at Post Meadows. Backcountry camping is also permitted with a free permit, available online or at refuge headquarters. Nearest accommodations are the Plush Bunkhouse, Hart Mountain Cabin and Frenchglen Hotel.

Getting There: Hart Mountain is about two hours east of Bend. Reaching the refuge requires travel on rural roads, so better to follow these directions (print them out) than a map app. For more information, contact the Sheldon-Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Lakeview at 541-947-3315, or at [email protected] There are no entrance or camping fees.

Come Prepared: For those not accustomed to Southeastern Oregon, distances between services can catch travelers off guard. Keep an eye on your gas gauge and fill up when it drops below a half tank. The closest gas stations to Hart Mountain are in Plush, 25 miles west, and Frenchglen, 49 miles east. When you’re headed up to the refuge, bring all the food and water you’ll need during your visit. The nearest grocery store is in Lakeview, 65 miles southwest. Cell service is spotty at best throughout the region.

Hart Mountain Area

About The
Author

Tina Lassen
Freelance writer and editor Tina Lassen writes about travel and outdoor recreation for several national publications, and is at work on a guidebook about watching wildlife in North America. Thanks to a career that lets her live anywhere, Tina happily makes her home in Hood River.

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