An effort to capture pronghorn north of Prescott Valley Tuesday could have been more successful, but then again it could have been worse, too.
Officials hope to catch a total of about 70 pronghorn from the plentiful herds on the Granite Dells Ranch north of Highway 89A, then trailer them to two sites in the grasslands of the San Rafael Valley and Elgin areas in southeast Arizona.
Arizona Game and Fish Department officials spent hundreds of hours over the last few months to prepare for the capture, putting the final touches on a quarter-mile-long V-shaped temporary fence Monday that funnels the pronghorn into a corral.
Building the fencing was the most strenuous part of the preparations.
"If you're silly enough to pick up a sledgehammer, you've got real work ahead of you," joked volunteer Earl Polvent of Peoria, an Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society member who has volunteered for several wildlife capture efforts.
On Tuesday, approximately 100 Game and Fish officials and volunteers returned for the capture effort.
The last time the Arizona Game and Fish Department and volunteers tried to capture pronghorn in Prescott-area grasslands two years ago, it was a total bust. They didn't catch any.
This time they returned to a previously successful spot on a local ranch. A helicopter worked several herds toward the fencing, but ended up capturing only the smallest herd of nine pronghorn.
Today, they hope to capture more.
"Unfortunately, the antelope don't seem to want to cooperate," said Jeff Pebworth, wildlife program manager for Game and Fish Region 3. "We put a lot of time and effort into this, so the fact that it didn't go smoothly is extremely frustrating. At least we got some."
The helicopter pilot had to try to get the herds to cross anywhere from one to three pasture fences to get to the trap. Having evolved on the open grasslands, the pronghorn can be skittish when they come upon a fence. If they do cross it, they prefer to crawl under it.
"Trying to drive them into a fenced area isn't easy, and if they don't want to go, I don't know if we can force them," observed Richard Ockenfels, who studied Arizona's pronghorn for two decades before recently retiring from the Game and Fish Department.
In several of Tuesday's attempts, it was clear the pronghorn weren't interested in going under the pasture fence.
Wildlife Manager Virginia Gouldsbury, flying with the helicopter pilot, decided to cut one fence open and see if that helped. She had previous permission from the landowner.
"They went right through the hole and right through the trap perfectly," she said of the small herd of nine.
But the following larger herd wouldn't budge. After the helicopter circled it several times, the herd finally just refused to move.
"When there's a direction they don't want to go, they just get in a bunch," Gouldsbury observed.
She was careful to keep the chases to about 15 minutes or less. When the animals showed signs of being tired, the pilot would refuel and then go look for another group of pronghorn.
One herd that looked promising was close to the Prescott airport, where it can be tricky for the helicopter to maneuver because of all the other air traffic.
So the helicopter will take to the air earlier this morning to avoid heavier airport traffic.
On Tuesday the volunteers and wildlife officials held the animals while technicians drew blood to check for viruses, gave the pronghorn shots containing anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety drugs, and placed ear tags on every animal and GPS collars on some.
The effort had one mortality when a pronghorn jumped into a fence and broke its neck before entering the corral.
The other eight pronghorn spent the night in a trailer. Officials hope to catch more this morning before heading to southeast Arizona, where herds need more size and gene diversity.
If they arrive in southeast Arizona near dark, they'll wait to release the pronghorn in the morning so the animals will have plenty of time to meet up with resident pronghorn and scout their new home for water and food before night.
State wildlife officials have been working closely with the Arizona Antelope Foundation over the last several years to improve the habitat at the southeast Arizona sites.