Mike Hobson squats along a fence line near Marfa, deep in Big Bend country. On one side the land is almost bare except for spiny cholla. “Look out there. There’s just not any good cover,” he says. “See how easy it would be to spot an antelope fawn?” I get down on all fours and play crouching coyote: Yes, dinner would be an easy catch. “But look on the other side of the fence,” Hobson says, pointing to land that isn’t so overgrazed by cattle. “Out there the antelope can at least lie down and hide.”Antelope, or pronghorns, are endearing symbols of the open range, but lately conversations in Big Bend coffee shops are turning to why fewer of them roam the desert grasslands. That’s exactly what 52-year-old Hobson, a wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, is trying to find out. In the mid-eighties the region’s antelope population hit a high of 17,000; last year it fell to a low of 5,200. “Antelope aren’t disappearing, but we’re concerned about the declining numbers,” Hobson tells me as we ride in his pickup between Alpine, Fort Davis, and Marfa. Once herds of thirty to fifty were common. On this trip we see fifteen at most in a group.
Part of the problem is years of drought and efficient predators like coyotes. Another factor is what Hobson calls the “hand of man”—namely, fencing and land use. “When you break up big ranches, you add more fences,” he says. Antelope normally won’t jump a fence, even though they can. They just never learned how. “They grew up in wide-open spaces,” Hobson explains.
He steers his truck off the road outside Fort Davis. Clad in jeans and a neat striped shirt, Hobson points to where twenty antelope starved several years ago. Here the fences are net wire, with a grid of closely spaced strands, a legacy from decades ago when large-scale sheep and goat ranches flourished. Such fences can be death traps for antelope, which can’t go through or under them and thus can’t roam for food. Fences also make it harder to outrun predators. Hobson has seen coyotes haze antelope toward fences and then corner them, “in relay-race fashion.”
This summer is particularly critical for Hobson. He will find out how many fawns, which are born from mid-May to early June, survived their first months. He and his staff will take to the skies in a Cessna to make aerial surveys, and they’ll count as many antelope as they can find. But Hobson knows it’s going to take a few years of good rain to turn around their long-term decline in the region. “We need Mother Nature’s help,” he says. Not to mention a lighter touch from the hand of man.