Boom, Boom on the Range

Where endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope play under the roar of U.S. Air Force jets on live-fire bombing exercises

Biologist John Hervert, arguably the world's foremost expert on the Sonoran pronghorn antelope, hoists an antenna in his left hand and listens to a receiver for blips indicating whether any radio-collared pronghorns are nearby. He hears nothing but static.

Before him stretches the xeric wilderness of the Growler Valley, a 10-mile-wide alluvial trough in southwestern Arizona devoid of anything manmade. No buildings, no roads, no cars, no glint of glass, no power poles, no smog--just a low, khaki forest of creosote and white bursage interrupted by clumps of paloverde and mesquite.

Hervert is not surprised that no pronghorns are detected. They are, after all, rare, endangered and scattered over millions of acres.

Hervert, 40, works for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish. He has devoted much of the past five years of his life to studying the phantom antelope, which, capable of speeds exceeding 70 miles per hour, is the swiftest land animal in the New World.

Hervert has traced pronghorn movements with radio and satellite telemetry, he's counted them from airplanes, he's donned camouflage to creep up on them, he's watched does give birth, he's captured them with nets dropped from helicopters, he's made photographs of them using infrared sensing devices.

When one of his radio-collared pronghorns dies--and an alarming number, 14, have died in the past two years--he pores over the remains, provided any can be found.

"Coyotes on the edge of starvation eat everything--everything," he explains. "They chew up all the bones."

Some estimates put the Sonoran pronghorn population at upward of 200, but Hervert figures no more than 140, and possibly as few as 80, survive in the United States, with an equally vague number across the border in Sonora. They live in one of the most forbidding environments on the planet.

Their parched habitat also lies beneath the U.S. military's second-largest aerial training site, the 2.7 million-acre Barry M. Goldwater Gunnery Range. It's where Top Gun pilots hone air-to-air combat skills and make bombing, strafing and missile runs on mock airfields and convoys.

Hervert's job is to help figure out how the Sonoran pronghorn can be preserved, and eventually removed from the Endangered Species List. The means to that goal are the subject of intense debate which, distilled to its essence, pits the fate of one timid mammal against the future of the Free World.

Hervert finds himself in the middle of a high-stakes scrum. Government agencies are at odds with conservation groups and often with each other. Lawyers are involved.

And Hervert is worried. Although Sonoran pronghorn are uniquely adapted to survive in their habitat, the drought that gripped the Southwest during the winter of 1995 and into 1996 appears to have taken a heavy toll on them. Predation, especially from coyotes, seems to be increasing. No fawns born in the spring survived the summer.

"I believe the likelihood of extinction is all too real for Sonoran pronghorn," Hervert says. "It won't take very many years of drought in a row for them to disappear."

Hervert is no tree-hugging alarmist. He's a well-educated man, a scientist who knows that management of any species must be based on solid research.

But he's as tough as the desert terrain. He's a plain-spoken game warden who wears a uniform, a sidearm, wraparound shades and the aura of confidence in his own survival skills.

So when he says that extraordinary measures are needed to save the Sonoran pronghorn, he speaks with credibility.

And that, perhaps, is why the U.S. Department of Justice tried to stop John Hervert from testifying that the Air Force could conceivably bomb the endangered Sonoran pronghorn back to the Stone Age, or beyond--all the way back to a time when the species didn't exist.

There is no evidence that military activity has ever killed or injured a Sonoran pronghorn--although in a place where no protein goes wasted, there's no guarantee any evidence could be found.

There is also little doubt that Barry M. Goldwater Gunnery Range, established in 1941, has over time had the effect of insulating the Sonoran pronghorn and other wildlife found there, including the endangered lesser longnosed bat. Luke Air Force Base administers the gunnery range.

The gunnery range overlays most of the 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The rest of the range covers property owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The range abuts the 330,900-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is administered by the U.S. Park Service.

Most of Cabeza Prieta and Organ Pipe are designated wilderness areas. Combined with the gunnery range, they keep three million acres of mostly pristine desert off-limits to such destructive forces as grazing, off-road vehicles and development in general.

While F-16 and A-10 jets prowl the skies above much of the pronghorn habitat, the Air Force says only 5 percent of the landscape is actually marked by military operations. The range contains roads, simulated combat targets such as airfields, control towers, hangars and other buildings. Pilots in training take aim at fake formations of tanks and mock railroad yards with trains.

The vast majority of the 50,000-plus sorties flown over the range each year involve delivery of ordnance that's not highly explosive. Upon impact, these projectiles merely emit a puff of smoke or a flare, enabling supervisors to rate a trainee's accuracy. These "inert" bombs do litter the landscape, but portions of the range are closed periodically so they can be collected.

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