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Marines help release endangered Pronghorn into Ariz. wild

Marines and civilians from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the relocation project of endangered Sonoran Pronghorn in Arizona on Dec. 18, 2012.

Marines and civilian employees from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma recently took part in a joint effort with several other state and federal agencies to capture, vaccinate and relocate Sonoran pronghorns to historic ranges in southwest Arizona, including one area which has not seen a wild population of the native species in over 100 years.

The goal of the relocation effort, which took place in December, was to transfer several Sonoran pronghorn from a captive breeding pen on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge to three other locations throughout the state, where biologists hope they will merge with herds already in those areas.

“I'm honored to participate in the Sonoran pronghorn operation. I believe my participation reflects the level of commitment the air station and the Marine Corps have to protecting and preserving the lands, animals, vegetation and cultural sites entrusted to our care,” said Col. Robert C. Kuckuk, commanding officer of MCAS Yuma. “Your Marines train hard on these ranges to fight our nation's wars, but that doesn't mean we won't do everything possible to ensure the survival of a species whose habitat shares the same space.”

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The U.S. Air Force 56th Fighter Wing, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument also took part in the relocation effort which ended on Dec. 20.

“I believe this is a great project that shows the military's willingness to work closely with other federal and state wildlife agencies to bring the Sonoran pronghorn back from near extinction,” said Bobby Law, MCAS Yuma's natural resource specialist. “Of course, the ultimate goal is to get the Sonoran pronghorn delisted, so they no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act and are a viable self-sustaining wild herd. This would show that we were successful in our recovery efforts.”

The Sonoran pronghorn is an endangered desert sub-species of the antelope family and has been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1967, due to habitat fragmentation, human disturbance, loss of forage and perennial rivers, and periods of extreme drought. In 2002 a 13-month-long drought wiped out all but 21 animals.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intervened to prevent extinction by providing water and forage and initiating a captive breeding program in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1939 and spans over 56 miles in Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico.

Approximately 100 Sonoran pronghorn are believed to remain in the wild in the United States, with about another 650 thought to be in Mexico. The fastest land mammal in North America, the Sonoran pronghorn once roamed in the thousands throughout the Sonoran Desert. A subspecies of pronghorn antelope, the Sonoran pronghorn is smaller and lighter in color and is uniquely adapted for survival in desert conditions.

In preparation of the relocation, Marines from range maintenance helped biologists from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground and the Arizona Department of Game and Fish build an enclosure on the Barry M. Goldwater Range that is being used to temporarily house six to eight pronghorn being moved to the area.

The temporary enclosure is being used to keep the pronghorn safe from predators such as coyote while they recover from being sedated during the roundup. They may spend as much as two weeks in the large pen, which has plenty of available water and both natural and supplemental feed sources.

During the relocation effort the pronghorns were fitted with radio collars, which will provide both wildlife officials and biologists an improved method to track the wild population without having to disturb the animals in their natural habitat.

The 10 pronghorn being sent to the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge will be moved into a captive breeding pen, where after an acclimation period of approximately two weeks, eight will be released back into the wild on the refuge. It has been over 100 years since a wild pronghorn population inhabited the Kofa range, and their return marks a historic event for the state of Arizona and wildlife conservation.

Additionally, six pronghorns are to be released into the Barry M. Goldwater Range West, a portion of the military training facility managed by the United States Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, and six animals will be released onto the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is managed by the National Park Service, to augment wild herds that currently exist.

For visitors to the Barry Goldwater Range, don't expect to see large herds of them roaming anytime soon. The animal is so elusive, they are sometimes referred to as the “Prairie Ghosts.”

For more information on the Sonoran pronghorn, visit the web sites for United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Cabeza Prieta NWR.

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