I am admiring a stuffed gray wolf and other taxidermy displays in the imposing new headquarters of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state when Richard Whitney, an affable man with broad shoulders and a single black braid, finally arrives. He shakes my hand. He smiles. He’s a little late, he explains, because he was up all night smoking salmon for his daughter’s impending wedding in Seattle.
Then he’s off again. He grabs telemetry equipment. He snags a spotting scope and some snacks. He leads me to a white Toyota pick-up parked in the sprawling lot, turns the key, hits the gas, and we’re on our way, zipping along the Columbia River and climbing high onto a basalt-studded plateau from which one can see the beginnings of the Cascade mountains many miles to the west.
Whitney, a wildlife biologist and reservation resident, is spending the day with me as we travel tribal lands looking for a lovely and elusive animal that had, until recently, been absent from the landscape for a century or more. Like many other indigenous nations across the country, the Colville tribes are ardent defenders of nature and leaders in restoring native wildlife to their territory. Many tribal members see wildlife restoration as a direct expression of their self-determination and sovereignty. Helping pronghorn antelope return to Washington, an achievement more than a decade in the making, is their latest contribution to the cause.
“The way we see it is, any native species that belongs here, that should have been here … why not bring it [back]?” says Whitney, chatting away behind the wheel. State and federal officials as well as local agricultural interests, he adds, don’t have much of a say in the matter. Washington’s wildlife authorities are well aware of the tribes’ prerogative to do as they please.
“They’re a sovereign nation and they’re releasing animals on their land,” says Rich Harris, a section manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We communicate, we were made aware of [the reintroduction], and we’re not objecting to it.” But even if the state had objected, he adds, “I don’t think it would have mattered.”
And so the pronghorn antelope finally came home to the shrub-steppe country of the Colville Reservation in January of 2016. But finding the fleet-footed creatures—the fastest land mammals in North America—is no sure bet. We have a day to achieve our goal, and, on this early August morning, with the truck bouncing and bobbing over washboard roads, we barrel into the backcountry.
Once, before white people were here, 35 million pronghorn rambled across the continent, from northern Mexico to central Canada, confined more or less to the western side of the 100th meridian. Only bison, in their massive millions, outnumbered the antelope. The petite and tawny ungulates made their living on forbs and shrubs and grasses, migrating where the food and the weather were amenable, fearing few predators until the colonizers came and changed everything.
Like so many other species, pronghorn suffered near-extermination at the hands of European migrants, with their disruptive land-use practices and powerful technologies. Overhunting, competition from livestock, and habitat fragmentation had a catastrophic effect, says John Byers, a University of Idaho biology professor and pronghorn researcher. By the 1920s, there were fewer than 20,000 pronghorn left in the United States. In Washington, they were wiped out completely.
“From our anthropologists and historians, we know there were pronghorn here,” says Mike Marchand, chairman of the Colville confederacy, sitting in his small corner office at headquarters. Indeed, paleozoological research suggests that pronghorn were present in consistent though limited numbers in Washington for much of the last 10,000 years. But they have been extirpated for roughly a century. “We don’t know the word for antelope,” Marchand adds. “That sort of tells you something. It has been a while.”