Bison restoration begins in Caprock Canyons

Oct 7, 2011

A few buffalo calves bawling outside Mrs. Charles Goodnight’s window in the late 1800s initiated a successful journey involving three states over 150 years to preserve the Southern Plains Buffalo Herd in the continental U.S. The trip came full circle on Saturday Sept. 16 when Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) celebrated the release of 80 buffalo, descendants of the Southern Plains Buffalo Herd. These animals, the official state buffalo herd, were released onto more than 700 acres of restored native grass prairie of Caprock Canyons State Park located 100 miles southeast of Amarillo.

Prior to the 1870s, the vast Plains buffalo herd numbered between 30 and 60 million head. It was estimated that some 3.5 million bison grazed the plains of Texas. Between 1874 and 1878, buffalo hunters slaughtered the animals for their meat, hides and horns, almost decimating the Southern Plains Bison Herd to near extinction.

Charles Goodnight, legendary cattleman, moved cattle into the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle when the slaughter was at its height. In order to let his cattle graze, Goodnight had to drive buffalo out of the canyon. By 1878, that was not necessary; buffalo hunters had left few bison remaining.

Mrs. Charles Goodnight, Mary, had been saddened by the killing of the buffalo. She influenced her husband into helping preserve the animals before the buffalo disappeared in order that future generations might be able to see and appreciate them. Goodnight found buffalo interesting, but Mary was the passion behind the need to save them. In 1878, Goodnight roped two buffalo calves from one of the remaining herds in the canyon and put them in a pen with a couple of ‘soon to be’ nurse cows that didn’t think much of the little brown fuzzy things.

A few single animals captured from other ranchers joined Goodnight’s herd, bringing their numbers up to seven head. He eventually built a herd of about 200 wild bison from the surviving remnants of the Southern Plains Buffalo Herd remaining on the open Texas range. The country in the Palo Duro Canyon Goodnight ranched with businessmen John Adair was established as the JA Ranch.

From his herd, Goodnight sold and donated breeding stock to help re-establish herds primarily to Yellowstone National Park and the New York Zoological Society. His sole Southern Plains Bison Herd was one of the five foundation herds established in the U.S. which supplied stock to preserving the species from extinction.

From the buffalo herd he preserved, Goodnight tried creating a hybrid by crossing them with cattle to produce a better grazing animal but eventually discontinued the crossbreeding program after several years. He was in buffalo meat business and sold hides, skulls and trophies. Raising bison and developing one of the best-known herds in America, Goodnight knew and lived with buffalo for 70 years until his death.

In 1966, the owners of the JA donated the last of the pure Southern Plains Buffalo Herd running free on their historic land to the state of Texas, which later purchased about 15,000 acres of the JA Ranch in 1975.

Feeling the buffalo would be protected from being killed off by hunters, in 1997, TPWD decided that it would be in the best interest of Texas and the buffalo to capture the remaining bison, about 35, roaming on about 70,000 acres, and relocate them to a 300-acre breeding facility within the Caprock Canyons State Park. TPWD goal was to eventually propagate a larger and healthier number of bison to once again roam freely in the area. Preservation of the Southern Plains Buffalo Herd genetics was the main concern of their breeding program. The relocated buffalo were tested genetically to determine the significance of the herd and which animals still contained traces of cattle left over from Goodnight’s attempts at crossbreeding buffalo.

What makes this buffalo herd unique is that while Goodnight shipped a lot of animals out, it appears that he never brought any in. Their DNA, representing the last remaining examples of southern Plains variety, is different and not found in any other buffalo herds in the world.

When the relocated herd demonstrated an increasing high newborn mortality rate, TPWD biologists began bringing in new bison bulls from outside herds that demonstrated good genetic diversity without cattle genes and were free of disease. . . hopefully having ties to Goodnight’s herd. They didn’t want to dilute the historical importance by bringing in other genes but didn’t want to lose the herd either. Biologists relied on genetic mapping to use selective breeding when expanding the herd’s genetic base. They found the herd’s genetics not as narrow as previously thought. TPWD bought bulls from a private New Mexico herd that was partially derived from Yellowstone stock that were descendants of buffalo Goodnight sent to Yellowstone 100 years prior to help preserve their herd.

Remnants of Goodnight’s historic herd living at Caprock Canyons State Park have increased in number to almost 80 animals since 1998 and could only be viewed from a distance in their enclosure. With the recent release into the 700-acre prairie grassland inside the park, visitors will have greater access to view buffalo closer in their historic native habitat in the Palo Duro Canyon. Park officials said their release and interaction within the park could not have gone any smoother.

To commemorate this first phase in bison restoration, TPWD hosted a ‘ribbon cutting,’ ceremoniously using barbed wire from Goodnight’s ranch. A full day of programs, activities and exhibits began with presentations by Texas A&M geneticist Dr. James Derr, Indian Nation Comanche Chairman Jimmy Wauqua, and performers with ties to Goodnight and the buffalo. A trail ride in the canyon was held on a Sunday morning. More than 1,000 visitors attended the weekend’s successful event while the buffalo grazed contentedly in their new home.

With a master plan to create a larger buffalo herd inhabiting 5,000 acres at Caprock Canyons State Park, TPWD’s vision is for descendants of the great southern Plains bison herd to once again roam the range of their ancestors. Based on what was evident at the park Sept. 16, it would seem the animals are off to a very successful beginning. —Ginger Elliot, WLJ Correspondent