The Name Game

By ROB BREEDING for the Flathead Beacon

We were enjoying a Flathead evening with skies freshly cleansed of smoke by the recent rains, and things got even better when a nice person slipped me a beer.

It was an IPA from a Missoula brewery, with the typical hoppy bitterness out front, finishing with pleasant citrus notes. The IPA was a fine example of a type that sometimes, under the influence of hop obsessed craft brewers, has strayed a bit from its roots. These new guard brewers sometimes crank out astringent syrups that turn a few reps of 12 ounce curls into a feat of strength.

This IPA sports a pronghorn on the label. As I explained, this is my favorite big game animal; my IPA provider noted I used the P word rather than the more common antelope.

I used to correct people when they used the A word. Pronghorns are not true antelope, I’d explain, and are actually an animal in a family all by themselves. They only resemble antelope – critters such as kudu and sable that are native to Africa and Eurasia – in looks and in their preference for the open plains.

At some point, thankfully, I got over my taxological OCD. It’s part of an ongoing effort not to act like a jerk.

87ipa0002_ipaposterI now use both terms interchangeably, but I sat through too many wildlife courses in grad school to fully abandon my pronghorn habit.

Some folks have the same problem with buffalo. You say something like, “I was south of St. Ignatius and I saw a herd of buffalo up on the hill,” and they reply, “Bison, you saw a herd of bison.”

And just to ratchet up the prickliness, they pronounce the “s” like a “z” and say “bizzen,” and you have to fight the urge to slap ‘em upside the head.

While the Missoula IPA is tasty, the depiction of the critter on the bottle isn’t quite right. North American antelope may be a bit barrel chested to make room for enormous out-sized lungs, heart and wind pipe, but otherwise these are slight animals built for speed and endurance.

The pronghorn on the label is not slight at all. It has the markings of the American speedster, but body type of its bulkier African cousins, with a shoulder hump and a thick neck. The label pronghorn reminds me of photos of Barry Bonds before and after he started hitting the juice. There’s the base stealer from his younger days in a Pirates uniform, and then there’s the thick-necked freak who defiled baseball records books in Giants orange and black.

As far as predators go, there’s not much that can bother an adult pronghorn. Topping out at 60 mph, they easily outpace any of the existing predators on the North American plains. The speed probably evolved as pronghorn tried to stay a step faster than the now extinct North American cheetah, an animal that probably wasn’t a cheetah in the modern sense. The North American cheetah, only known from bone fragments and incomplete skeletons, may have evolved from a common ancestor of the mountain lion. Through the process of convergent evolution these lions developed many of the same characteristics we see in modern cheetah: long legs designed for speed and shortened faces designed for increased air intake to fuel high-speed pursuits.

But we don’t know for sure. Maybe we should release some African cheetahs in Arizona pronghorn habitat and see how they interact?

Fawns are a different story. In the first few weeks of life they are vulnerable to a variety of predators. Coyotes are particularly adept at raiding pronghorn fawning grounds. Eagles are another threat. The other day I saw a curious sight out on the open pronghorn range west of Dillon. A lone pronghorn doe was surrounded by a dozen or so fawns. They were crowded around the old matriarch, apparently seeking protection.

Ten or 15 yards away was the source of the concern. A golden eagle sat on the plains, eyeing the tasty young speedsters. Soon, the fawns will be too much of a handful for an eagle. But for now, at least, the threat remains.