Sandhills above Sharptails below Pronghorn on the skyline

  • Mike Leahy, NWF Policy Director: Wildlife Hunting and Fishing
  • Apr 11, 2023

Sandhill cranes are conservation royalty. Tall, raucous, prehistoric, they were an omen of good luck, good fortune, or good fishing to certain Native American Tribes. To conservation luminary Aldo Leopold they were the “trumpet in the orchestra of evolution”, “symbol of our untamable past.” Wow. So when I heard then saw flock after flock migrating south overhead, while hunting the sage and shortgrass below, I was enlivened, and filled with confidence.


We were not after cranes though, but an animal equally impressive evolutionarily — the pronghorn. Second fastest land animal on earth. Like an antelope but not one, flaunting bright white accents on a brownish body because it can. Why so fast in North America? One likable theory is that they had to flee the long gone American cheetah.


Pronghorn harvest


I had a plan for getting my first pronghorn that was grounded in experience, and my dreams. While hunting sharp-tailed grouse a few years back, a few miles from the road, on a lot of federal land, we turned the corner on a wondrous valley filled with a placid herd of 60 or more pronghorns, hanging out where they were least likely to be located. We soaked in the scene, then slipped away unseen. I longed to recreate that and similar experiences, and while it took over six years to draw a Montana nonresident pronghorn tag, I learned about bonus points and finally had a tag in my pack.


My plan was to chase sharp-tailed grouse in the cool mornings with my springer Stella and any other friends or dogs who wanted to join, scouting for pronghorn all the while. It worked that one time, why not again? My friends mocked but were intrigued by my strategy, and a few of us gave it a good go. Three days in a row. Each day, it almost worked.


Hunting dog afield


Sharptails are hard to locate, in my humble experience, popping up from seemingly indistinguishable places. I have noticed a few features they seem to like, such as gentle slopes and ravines above a little water. Over the years I have found few reliable sharptail hotspots, but we visited one and it turned out over 20 the first morning - a great way to start the hunt. Stella - plucked off the couch in Maryland and plopped down in the prairie with the prickly pears - native but gnarly ground cacti - wasn’t quite sure what to make of the ones I shot, or this whole experience. But with a little help from Raleigh, originally from the Fort Peck Reservation, she started to figure it out, a little bit anyway.


Sure enough, after a mile or two, we turned a corner in a cattail patch down low, and noticed a pronghorn skylined far above us. The monocular showed three bedded on a large knoll. A sharpie on the way back to the truck, a hot lunch, and a few hours later we were creeping over the back side of that knoll. The pronghorn were positioned to see or smell all comers, and we didn’t know where or even if they were, so I was thrilled we got within 50 yards before they popped up, but took off before I could line up a safe shot.


Hunter afield


This fantasy combo hunt, for me at least, continued for three days. No more sharptails - hard to find - but we encountered a rattlesnake, massive badland rabbits, a porcupine ambling across the open prairie - what? - and antelope each day. At the end of one long, tiring day, having seen none, we were on our way to peer over one last ridge before dusk when a herd of 16 came full speed over it, half-circled us, stopped for a moment to size us up, then whirled off with the wind.


Satisfied with the experience, and sore, we turned to the trucks, and on day four (overall), came across a herd hiding in a hollow just below - but out of sight from - a muddy BLM road. Even this required an epic, if shorter, stalk, enhanced by freezing rain, and I filled my tag with a beautiful buck.




As always, a copper bullet did the trick - Federal 150 grain 30.06 (too big I know, but it’s what I have), although my shot was only about 150 yards. I was mentally prepared for much longer but glad I didn’t have to put my short Maryland shooting skills to the test. I was amazed at how clean and lean the buck was - an honor to butcher.


I shot the sharptails on a national wildlife refuge with steel shot -- Winchester Super-X #6 I think, and the pronghorn could have just as easily been on refuge land as not. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers an expansive array of hunting on well-managed refuges spanning urban and rural areas across America. And they recently opened up even more refuges to new hunting and fishing opportunities.


Flower in grass


Lead ammunition and tackle will not be allowed in these newly opened areas however. Biologists have shown that even a little lead can sicken or kill wildlife when they eat an animal wounded or lost by a hunter shooting lead. Or eat from a gut pile containing lead bullet fragments. Or mistake lead shot or tackle for food. And, wildlife being the top priority on wildlife refuges, refuge managers are starting to take steps to reduce lead poisoning, as state wildlife agencies often do on state wildlife management areas. For the many hunters and anglers that have already taken note of these unintended impacts and changed their practices to reduce lead in the field, using ammunition and fishing tackle without lead in it will be a non-issue.


Hunting dog near water


For hunters who are not aware of the potential for lead left in the field to harm eagles, owls, swans, loons, and other cool creatures, we recommend leaving the lead at the range, and shooting steel in the field, or copper, or some other lead-free ammo. That way, when and where you likely shoot the most - at the range - you can use lead ammo, which is generally less expensive, knowing the lead can be contained and recovered with minimal impact on wildlife. In the field, where you probably don’t pull the trigger nearly as often, give wildlife (and refuge managers) a break and splurge a little on non-toxic products (although Winchester Super-X steel shot has been selling for around the price of equivalent lead shot recently at Bass Pro Shops and Walmart). A good place to prioritize leaving the lead at home would be where the needs of wildlife take precedence over ours – such as a national wildlife refuge. Happy hunting.


Mike Leahy is the Policy Director of Wildlife Hunting and Fishing for the National Wildlife Federation. Leahy supports the restoration of all wildlife populations through his work on policy related to wildlife, hunting, fishing, and public lands. 

Learn More

Get Involved

The Great American Outdoors Act will fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund while investing in a backlog of public land maintenance, providing current and future generations the outdoor recreation opportunities like boat launches to access fishable waters, shooting ranges, and public lands to hunt as well as the economic stimulus we need right now. 

Tell Congress to Pass the Great American Outdoors Act and Fully Fund LWCF!