(Image credit: Defenders of Wildlife)
Estimates of 20 million to 30 million bison, literally a “sea of brown,” roamed the plains of the United States as late as the 1800s. It was not uncommon for travelers to have to stop for hours and sometimes days as herds of the big animals crossed their route. The native tribes freely hunted them, depending upon their meat for food, their hides for clothing, for a medium of exchange, and for their use in building their habitat. In a few decades, the shaggy animals were almost hunted and slaughtered to extinction. As the state began to be inhabited by European settlers, the bison population sharply declined. It is accepted that one of the reasons the over-harvesting of bison was condoned was that it made the native tribes’ lives more difficult, no longer having a plentiful source of bison to live on. The bison were no match for the hunters and the big animals were allowed to dwindle down to possibly as few as 1,000 survivors by about 1890.
The animals have an keen sense of smell, but suffer from poor eyesight. They are beneficial to the ecosystem since as they eat and roam, they churn up the soil, helping grasses and other plants to grow. They are food sources of their natural non-human predators, such as coyotes and wolves. Left to roam, they follow their food supply, eating mainly native grasses and sedges. They travel in herds, with the bulls tending to remain solitary or in separate groups, unless it is mating season. Bison are the largest land mammal in North America. Males can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand as high as six feet. Despite their size, they can achieve speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.
It is estimated that as many as 500,000 bison remain in North America, though many of them are not pure breeds, as a result of cross breeding with beef cattle. Most of the bison alive today are currently in commercial herds and are of mixed genetics. The largest herd of purebred bison is thought to be at Wood Buffalo National Park and to number around 10,000. Yellowstone National Park is home to another herd of around 4,000.
While to some people, the following might fall short of being a Texas happy ending, the Charles Goodnight family figures in a conservation effort that saved a number of the animals. Panhandle ranchers Charles and Mary Ann “Molly” Goodnight started a herd of them prior to 1880, after they came upon five to seven motherless calves on their JA Ranch. The Goodnights also acquired other bison as they came across them. Once their herd began to increase in numbers, the Goodnights experimented with cross breeding them to their own cattle in order to see if the offspring might be commercially viable. The product was called “cattalo” back then (“beefalo” more recently). Under the Goonights, the herd increased to around 200 bison.
The former Goodnight herd was donated to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department by a subsequent owner of the JA Ranch in 1997 and relocated to Caprock Canyons State Park. Caprock Canyons, near Quitaque, was selected from a group of sites that included Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo and the Matador Wildlife Management area near Paducah. It has almost doubled the acreage compared to where the herd was previously located.
Nationwide, there are several distinct bison subspecies, with the Northern and Southern subspecies having developed according to their geographic locations. Texas Parks and Wildlife was initially concerned that the former Goodnight herd might be heavily crossbred, but DNA testing revealed that though there were some mixed bred bison, the majority of this herd had genetics not common to any other herd in North America. They are scientifically significant because they are believed to be the last individuals of the Southern Plains bison subspecies. Texas Parks and Wildlife is now able to select the purebred Southern Plains individuals for breeding, which would not have been possible years ago. That being said, due to complications of inbreeding and the herd’s low genetic density, the herd wil need to be crossbred to some extent in order to avoid its dying out, according to Texas A&M research. It is thought that this will make them genetically viable and increase their fertility rate, while also helping them to be less suceptible to disease.
There are currently over 150 bison in the Quitaque herd as of July, 2017. The herd may be viewed at Caprock Canyons State Park. The following link will take you to the park website. For the last several years each fall, a fund raiser has been held near Quitaque called the Texas State Bison Music Festival to help cover the costs of maintaining the herd. This year the 7th Annual Caprock Canyons State Park Texas State Bison Music Festival will be held on September 23, 2017.
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