UMATILLA - It took more than an hour to find them. And then, all of a sudden, there they were.
Standing on the chilly desert landscape of the Umatilla Chemical Depot, some members of the antelope herd stared warily at the approaching truck, while others casually munched desert shrub.
Under the direction of Depot commander Col. Frederick Pellissier, Don Gillis, an environmental protection specialist for the environmental, cultural and natural resources programs at the Depot, has the envious task of keeping track of the small herd of antelope living on the 20,000 acres of Depot property.
Gillis shares his office on the Depot with Deborah Lopez, also an environmental protection specialist. He also shares it with a small lizard indigenous to warmer climates, some fish, numerous photos of his boat, cows, dogs and sons, a mobile of the moon and stars, snake skins, bones and scat from various critters found on the Depot.
Prior to the trip out to find and photograph animals, Gillis sits in his office dressed in blue jeans with his gray hair covered by a baseball cap. He flips through paperwork and tells the story of the Depot antelope.
The antelope aren't indigenous to the depot. They were planted there in 1969 by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
They were introduced from Brothers, Ore., as part of a special project that would serve as a source population for ongoing transplant operations to other areas in Oregon and other states where antelope populations were failing or extinct.
And after living 30 years on the Depot, the animals also have been used to test the genetic stability of non-migratory antelope.
When the project began, 17 antelopes were introduced to the area, including two adult males, two juvenile males, 10 adult females and three juvenile females.
In 1986, the population grew to 350 animals and in February 2000, 30 young animals, most of them pregnant females, were taken from the Depot and shipped to northern Nevada in a trade for some big-horn sheep that were being reintroduced to Steens Mountain.
The roundup of the antelope was an experience Gillis will never forget. "They can run 60 miles per hour. They are almost as fast as a cheetah," he said.
Mark Kirsch, a district wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Pendleton, said blood samples were taken from the antelope during the roundup to be used later to compare with migratory antelope.
Another point to the experiment, Kirsch said, was to test the antelope's genetic propensity to have an elongated, curved nose. No determination has been made as to why the antelope have developed this long nose, but it isn't just found on Depot antelope.
"The other thing that is notable about these antelope is that their productivity is very poor. Most of the females are old and the small numbers are suspect of the controlled environment," he said. There also are more bucks than does, something that doesn't bode well for a healthy reproduction, he said.
The antelope are a pronghorn antelope species of their own called Antilocapra americana. "The only true antelope species live in Africa," Gillis said.
The Depot's antelope actually are more unique than African antelope, Gillis said, in that they are not related to any other animal species.
Standing on the cold desert terrain and watching them run is a chance to witness true wildness, beauty and strength.
The horns of the antilocapra americana are pronged and are made up of a bony core covered by a keratinous sheath that is shed yearly. They have hollow, brittle hairs that are easily damaged.
They are reddish brown or tan in color on their backs and white on the underbelly and rump. The neck has a short, black mane and there are white stripes on their necks. The males have black masks. The females can have horns too, but they are short and are not pronged.
In the 1920s, conservationists became concerned over the dwindling population of these antelope because they were being over-hunted. The North American numbers dwindled to fewer than 20,000, according to a report published by the University of Michigan. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, about 500,000 are believed to be living in the United States and Canada. Populations in Mexico still are "dangerously small," the report states, with fewer than 1,200 animals living in that country.
The antelope population on the Depot has dwindled since the 2000 roundup and Gillis believes one of the reasons is because of natural predation from coyotes. The coyotes have learned to run the antelope into the fence, and the antelope are not physically capable of jumping the fences. There is no hunting of the animals allowed on the Depot, said spokesman Jim Hackett.
Gillis doesn't know if the Depot's antelope project will continue after the remaining antelope die of natural causes, but he said the original study has been promising.
"The viability of continuing the transplant program is left to be seen," he said. "The animals here look real healthy and there have been no problems with genetic deformities."
Kirsch said that because of the Depot's uncertain future, there are no plans at this time to replenish the antelope herd with new and younger animals. If the Depot was going to remain a sanctuary of sorts, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife could think about replenishing the herd, he said.
"For us, we're in a holding pattern," he said.
It would be a shame if the animals died out, Hackett said. They even are a part of the Depot's logo.
The animals are managed "as naturally as possible," Gillis said. They eat the naturally growing shrubs and weeds on the Depot and drink from man-made watering holes on site.
The antelope and coyotes are not the only wildlife that call the Depot home. In the spring and summer, brown and tan-colored burrowing owls take over abandoned badger holes, nesting and hunting for rodents on site. In the winter, they fly to nesting areas in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico to keep warm, though they occasionally winter in colder climates if food is plentiful, Gillis said.
"The badgers dig dens, then use them for a short period, then abandon them to dig another one," Gillis said. "The owls take over and use them to raise their young. Coyotes also are natural predators of the burrowing owl and the nesting pairs frequently move to new nests to avoid predation."
Burrowing owls are species of special concern in Oregon, which means their numbers are dwindling and being watched. Great-horned owls also have been seen on the Depot. Gillis has a scar on his right arm from an owl talon. The talon went through his skin when he rescued an injured bird.
Gillis also has witnessed long-billed curlews, also a vulnerable species in Oregon, nesting on Depot property as well as Swainson's Hawks, a vulnerable bird of prey.
He also manages the shrub-steppe terrain, or natural treeless grassland that is indigenous to areas such as Washington, Eastern Oregon, Colorado and Utah.
Until 100 years ago, states a paper published by the Pacific Northwest Laboratory, shrub-steppe vegetation covered more than 200,000 square miles of the American West. As a result of human development, much of the native vegetation has been reduced.
The Depot serves as a sort of natural sanctuary away from development for these and many more animal and plant species. One of Gillis' tasks is to teach Army and National Guard units to stay on paved roads and not to further damage the terrain and habitat with Humvees and jeep traffic.
When the 3,717 tons of chemical agent and other defunct weapons being stored on the Depot are destroyed in compliance with an international treaty agreement by 2012, and the incinerator used to burn them is torn down, it is still not known what will happen to the Depot property.
The Depot was former ceded territory belonging to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Gillis said. Under the 1855 treaty, the Tribes gave up the right to own the land but still reserved the right to fish, hunt and gather there.
"That's why I work so hard to try and keep it just as natural as I can. We're trying to manage the natural resources here as best we can," Gillis said. "We don't do anything without consulting the Tribes."
That means managing the Depot wildlife and habitat for future use, whatever that use may be.
Reporter Carie L. Call can be reached at 1-800-522-055 (ext. 1-304 after hours) or e-mail: email@example.com.