By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The return of the pronghorn antelope into western Kansas isn't quite as romantic as that of the bison.

Despite that, more than 100 people will go afield starting today for the start of the pronghorn firearms season. Hunters bearing muzzleloaders and bows already have been afield. Pronghorn can be hunted only in the western-most reaches of Kansas.

Overall, Kansas is sporting a small but healthy herd of pronghorn antelope, a species unique to North America.

"It appears to be stable to increasing slightly," Matt Bain said. "I mean very slightly."

Bain is a Colby-based wildlife biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and generally is active in most pronghorn projects primarily because of where he is based.

That increase is based on a summer survey conducted in July and August, when Bain, biologist Matt Peek and others take to the air to fly the pronghorn's peak range.

"To get an idea of this year's fawn crop," Bain said of the reason for the survey. They are not trying to estimate the size of the herd overall, as that survey is flown during the winter months.

"We generally fly an area roughly from Brewster to Goodland, then down south to Highway 40," he said. "We fly every section line."

Traditionally, the survey area has been the core pronghorn area in Kansas.

As they fly and count, Bain said, the department is able to get a ratio of does to fawns.

"This year, for every 100 does there were about 60 fawns," he said. "That's pretty good. By biologist's standards, that's pretty good."

That might not be as good as Wyoming or Colorado, perhaps, where pronghorn conditions are nearly ideal. There, they will have as many as two fawns per doe.

That makes the Kansas pronghorn herd even more tenuous.

Pronghorn are yet another animal that has been troubled by either a lack of habitat or a more broken up pattern that reflects traditional agriculture.

Long ago, pronghorn were nearly as plentiful as bison and were nearly exterminated as a result of hunting.

Trapping and transplanting efforts started in 1964 in Wallace and Sherman counties, with later efforts to follow. Some reintroduction efforts were made in the central part of the state, but only about 50 animals remain in the Flint Hills. There are a few in Barber County.

That means most of the animals are in the western tier of counties, although a few have traveled as far east as Trego County.

"There's something to do with landscape out here," Bain said of the area where the pronghorn lives. "It's fragmented compared to Wyoming."

And Kansas probably has a higher density of predators, he said.

Harvest and disease are the other factors dragging down the pronghorn's numbers.

Hunting pressure is far from extensive, however.

Only about 400 licenses are issued each year. Hunters using firearms have the greatest success; about 77 percent of the licensed hunters get their animal. About half the muzzleloaders get an animal, and only about 15 percent of the archers are successful. But there's no limit on over-the-counter archery permits, even for non-resident hunters.

"That's one thing we're definitely keeping an eye on," Bain said.

Not many out-of-staters head to Kansas to hunt pronghorns, "because our population is so low," he said.

Non-resident pronghorn tags are comparable in cost to Wyoming, which has a much higher number of animals.

Of the Kansas animals killed, only about 14 percent are does, however, meaning firearms hunters focus on bucks 2 years old and older.

"If you start harvesting a higher proportion of bucks, we're not going to have trophy potential," he said.

That means hunters aren't seeing the trophy-size animals.

Bain said KDWP is cautious with the release of permits, out of fear of hurting the overall population as a result of hunting pressure.

And there's no love lost between farmers and pronghorns.

"There's very few landowners that appreciate pronghorns in Kansas," Bain said, and virtually all of the pronghorn hunting is on private land. "I don't want to suggest there is a lot of poaching going on, but that's probably a factor."

Farmers don't like pronghorn for several reasons, much of it tied to their visibility.

"Being highly visible, there's some things that they get blamed for," he said, including the spread of bindweed.

Research, however, has shown they are an insignificant facilitator of spreading bindweed, Bain said.

"Bindweed seed is not viable once it passes through a pronghorn," he said.

The noxious weed can be spread by cattle and birds, however, in addition the haying of pastures.

Some people also think pronghorns running on a field causes it to blow.

"They're visible, and they're something people feel like they can't control," Bain said of the attitude toward pronghorns.

Yet the population is relatively low, somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 statewide.

In Colorado, Bain said, "there might be that many animals on a single property."

Most of the pronghorns in Kansas are in an area bounded by Interstate 70 on the north, stretching to Trego County -- where there are only a few -- on the east. U.S. Highway 283 is the eastern boundary, heading south to Kansas Highway 96 into Lane County and then south into Finney County.

"It's not a straight line," Bain said.

A few animals are occasionally seen north of I-70 in Sherman and Thomas counties, but the interstate is a good northern border.

"The interesting thing about pronghorns is they're only found in arid parts of the United States," Bain said. "That's it. They're not found anywhere else in the world."

And they were nearly lost, he said.

"They were basically extinct from Kansas."

Keeping a strong pronghorn herd is a classic wildlife management issue, Bain said.

Habitat is just one limiting factor.

"There's probably habitat out there that is suitable for pronghorns," he said. "When they expand on their own, they don't last very long."