The history of the Texas Plains is as colorful as one of its famous sunsets. Looking into the past, it is hard to miss the looming figure of the Southern Plains Bison.
The earliest explorers crossing the vast plains were awed by the sheer numbers of bison they encountered. Estimates place the number of bison roaming the plains to be between thirty and sixty million. Definitely an animal not in danger of disappearing.
Bison originally came to North America across the Bering Strait land bridge about 25,000 years ago. The Southern Plains Bison descended from an animal that was two times larger than the bison of today. Fossils indicate that their horn spans were up to six feet long! These giant bison adapted to the North American Great Plains, and herds grew to an incredible size. Their range covered an area from Canada to Mexico and from Buffalo, New York to the Rocky Mountains.
The incredible number of bison on the plains provided more than just food for the people of the plains. For the Plains Indians, the bison was their life, second only to the Great Spirit. From the bison, the Plains Indians got food, shelter, clothing, and tools. The bison was much like a walking grocery store! In the beginning, tribe members would circle herds on foot and use arrows to kill the animals they needed. As horses became part of life on the plains, hunting tactics changed. Herds were stampeded over the cliffs of Palo Duro Canyon or driven into bogs and blind canyons. Horses allowed tribes to circle and confuse bison herds. They would stampede in a mass, and riders would use arrows and lances to kill the enormous creatures.
Once the tribe had killed the needed bison, they used every portion. The meat was eaten raw, cooked, or dried into pemmican. Bison hides were made into footwear, clothing, flooring, and sleeping mats. The sinew of the animals was used for sewing and binding. Bones were used as needles, spoons, and other important daily tools. The bison were life to the Plains Indians, providing everything they needed to survive.
In addition to providing a means of survival for the Plains Indians, the bison played a key role in the ecosystem of the prairie. As a keystone species, grazing bison reduced the amount of dead vegetation. They did not crop grass too closely, so new plant growth could occur. New plants encouraged a wide variety of animal life on the prairie. As important as prairie fire, the bison influenced every aspect of existence on the plains. Bison wallows created mini-wetlands, adding even more diversity to prairie life. Their hoof prints left depressions to collect water. Powerful fertilizer resulted from bison waste, encouraging growth through germination and establishment. Predators and scavengers relied on bison for food, along with the people of the plains. Without the bison, prairie life could not thrive.
Pioneers moving across the plains took advantage of the safe bison trails they found. These trails were level and avoided swamps and quicksand. As these settlers moved across the prairies, the bison began to decline. Before this time, the size of the bison allowed it to avoid predators. As a result of their lack of fear, the bison would stand their ground as humans approached. With the appearance of guns on the plains, bison became hunted almost to extinction. The bison were slaughtered for many reasons. Machinery belts were created from bison hides. Railroads and the Army believed eliminating the bison would eliminate the Indians. Luxury trips allowed people to shoot bison from the windows of trains crossing the plains. The great animal’s bodies were left to rot, unused. Professional buffalo hunters shot bison in massive numbers only to harvest their tongues and their hides. Due to the quick annihilation of herds, bison bones could be collected later by the very same buffalo hunters and sent east to be crushed for fertilizer.
Between the years of 1874 to 1878, hide hunters virtually eliminated the Southern Plains Bison. In fact, in 1888, only about 1,000 of these mighty animals were thought to be left in North America. It was during this “great slaughter” that the bison of the southern plains were also saved. Ranchers played a vital role, even unknowingly, in the preservation of the prairie bison. Charles Goodnight rescued orphan calves from the plains at the urging of his wife, Mary. The pitiful creatures could be heard bawling, crying for mothers slaughtered during the day. Goodnight began gathering calves and raised them on the JA Ranch. This simple and seemingly sentimental action saved the Southern Plains Bison. The herd started by the Goodnights on the JA Ranch grew to two hundred head. The Texas State Bison Herd is descended from the original Goodnight Herd. The Goodnights were not the only ranchers concerned with the plight of the bison. Four other herds were started and provided foundation stock for nearly all bison in North America today.
The foresight of Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight saved an animal many consider to be an icon of the American West. The Goodnights could not have foreseen how important their efforts would come to be. The bison descended from the Goodnight Herd hold a rare genetic marker, making them the last group of Southern Plains Bison remaining in North America.
Today, conservation of the bison species is a top priority. Caprock Canyons State Park is the home of the Texas State Bison Herd. In 1994, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department accepted the donation of fifty head of bison from the JA Ranch. The herd was eventually moved to Caprock Canyons. The state park was originally part of the JA Ranch, home of the original Goodnight Herd. The park is dedicated to re-establishing the bison as a keystone species by continuously increasing the herd and its range. In addition, the genetic integrity of the herd is carefully guarded through a selective breeding program. The unique genetic markers of the Texas State Bison Herd are not shared with any other bison found in North America. The herd is carefully monitored and receives health checks each year. In addition, their habitat is carefully maintained through vegetation studies, grazing control, and prescribed fire.
Bison are surprisingly athletic. An adult cow can jump an eight foot fence from a standing position. A bull can easily jump a four foot fence. Bison run thirty miles per hour and can maintain this speed for up to thirty miles. The light brown to cinnamon colored newborn calves are able to keep pace with the herd just a few days after they are born. Even though bison are part of the Bovine family, they are different from cattle. In fact, even though the term buffalo is often used to describe these massive North American mammals, there are no true buffalo in North America. (The African Cape Buffalo and the Asian Water Buffalo are the only true buffalo.) Bison are larger than cattle. They have fourteen pairs of ribs rather than the cattle’s thirteen pair. A bison’s extra pair of ribs support the huge hump of the bison. Perhaps the largest difference is the bison’s hump. The bison’s hump is a huge shoulder muscle that holds up its head. The powerful muscle system related to the bison’s hump, allows the bison to plow through deep snow during the winter. A mature bull stands six feet tall at the hump. He weighs between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds. In comparison, cattle are only five feet tall and weigh 900 to 1,200 pounds. Finally, bison reach sexual maturity at age three instead of two as cattle. Unlike the characteristic lowing associated with cattle, bison communicate with a variety of noises. In fact, some think the roaring, booming sounds of the bison sound more like a lion. When excited or agitated, bison raise their tails in an “s” shape. As a result, people know when to “high-tail it outta here!”
The bison brings to mind the rich history of the plains. Images of the majestic animal inspire awe and reverence. The conservation of the Texas State Bison Herd allows continued study of bison. As more and more visitors view the herd, the legacy of the bison continues into a new generation.