Anyone who lives in the Rocky Mountain states has probably seen a Pronghorn Antelope in the open grasslands near highways away from urban population areas. There are an estimated 80,000 pronghorn living in Colorado.
Though pronghorn are often referred to as “antelope”, they aren’t really antelope at all, though they have a striking similarity to some species of antelope, which is probably how they became known as such. The pronghorn in North America are a singular species of animal more closely related to giraffes and okapi. It’s okay to refer to them as antelope though, as that is the most common name used by people over the years, it’s just not technically correct, a similar language deviation as the American Bison being called Buffalo.
Pronghorn are one of the fastest running animals in the world, second only to the African Cheetah, known to achieve speeds of up to 55-60 mph, and they can maintain that speed over long distances, which a cheetah can’t do. I’ve personally clocked them near 60 miles per hour running parallel to my vehicle.
Over the years as a wildlife photographer, I’ve photographed the pronghorn a few times. I see them all the time when I’m moving around through the rural areas of Colorado but have never put much effort into actually finding them and learning how to best photograph them. That mentality has led me to revisit my efforts with this animal, as they are a staple animal in the Colorado wildlife photography genre.
I recently made my first concerted effort to find and photograph these animals. For that effort, I traveled to South Park in central Colorado, near the town of Hartsel. The idea was to define a general driving loop in the high prairie that I could revisit and be reasonably assured to encounter them. I was successful, seeing many small herds scattered around the countryside at regular intervals.
I’ll share a few things I’ve already learned about them which might be of some help if you too wish to photograph them in their natural environment.
First, they aren’t really hard to find. They are just really hard to get close to. Most often, you’ll probably see them in open prairie grass or scrub at some distance. Most of the herds I found were 500-1,000 meters from the road. It’s also likely that you may see singular or small groups hanging out near the rural roads, many times close enough to actually get usable photos of. But there’s the rub. If you pull off the road and get out of your car, the pronghorn will probably run off before you can even get a camera to your eye. They are extremely skittish animals and do not tolerate the presence of humans. They prefer to stay in wide open fields at a distance, which is probably a defensive behavior. Not much of anything is going to sneak up on them. Pronghorn are not aggressive animals either. I’ve never seen one do anything but look at me or run.
The area of South Park, which lies between Kenosha Pass and state highway 24 is estimated to have a herd size of about 1,000 animals. To get to them, I drove south along highway 285 to Elkhorn Road, between the small town of Jefferson and Fairplay. Elkhorn Road is dirt and will take you South all the way to highway 24 west of Colorado Springs. It’s no big secret. Being a fairly remote area of the state, there isn’t a lot of infrastructure. South Park consists mostly of scattered ranches and dirt county roads. Using Elkhorn Road and Highway 24 as a center line, you can then travel the county roads that spider out through that general corridor. My recent trip involved a little over 300 miles of driving. Some on pavement some on dirt. A good solid 4×4 SUV or Pickup truck should do you just fine, but be warned some of dirt county roads in the more remote areas are not well maintained, so a typical passenger vehicle would not be recommended.
I’ve also discovered that working from a vehicle is a preferred method, as the pronghorn don’t react as strongly to a nearby vehicle as they do to a nearby person. Your vehicle serves as a good blind. They will notice the vehicle and pay attention to it, but if you get out of the vehicle, they will most likely leave the area in short order. Try approaching them on foot and they will take off running. I think my best photos of them so far have been taken through the window of my vehicle, and those photos can be relatively close to the animals.
Another sometimes successful tactic is a photographic ambush. You may be able to spot them moving through a rolling hill area and have an opportunity to position your vehicle on the opposite side of a ridge in their path. I’ve had them stroll directly over a ridge into my scene and then move on past, allowing me to get a few shots from the vehicle. Keep an eye on your sunlight though. Don’t position yourself to ambush them with the sun in front of you, as your photos will be backlit and probably suck.
I’ve found that observation and patience can pay off with pronghorn. Funny though, I don’t have a medical degree, so I’m not really allowed to have patience. (dumb joke)
Pronghorn are one wildlife subject where a camera with a high shutter frame rate and a long telephoto lens, say 500-600mm will serve you well. I’ve been using my Nikon D500 at 10 frames per second with the Nikkor 200-500mm VR. Good autofocus and fast shooting pays dividends with this animal. Be prepared to shoot quickly too, you won’t get much face time with them once they spot you, they bolt within seconds of seeing you.
All that said, here are a few photos I’ve grabbed so far. I intend to invest more time photographing these interesting animals this summer and into the future. Any wildlife photographer worth his/her salt, should consider adding them to their portfolio.
Stay tuned to this blog, as I will be working these animals and sharing the photos more often. They are just too cool to ignore any longer.
From the edge of the map.