There has been a sudden interest in the American Bison lately, stemming from some confrontations between the animals and park visitors at Yellowstone National Park. It reminded me of a few years back and a trip to Caprock Canyons State Park in Texas, where I learned a lot about Bison and a fascinating story of why there is a herd in the park.
Many people mislabel Bison as buffalo. Bison are distinct from buffalo, although they are both in the bovine family. True buffalo are found in Asia or Africa, and the Bison is in North America. However, no one knows who started calling bison buffalo or why there are several theories. One is that they were similar to cattle; the french word for beef is boeuf, pronounced Buff, and the name evolved from there. Another theory is that some explorers thought they looked similar to the water buffalo back in the old world and so-called them a familiar name that stuck. When the first settlers came to the North American continent, there may have been as many as 60 million Bison roaming throughout North America. Today, there are a few scattered herds in the plains, either in Parks or privately owned. One of those herds is in Texas at Caprock Canyons State Park. This herd belongs to the State of Texas and is known as the Official Texas Bison Herd.
The history of this particular herd of Bison is fascinating. It is the only pure stock of Southern plains bison in existence. The animals are still around thanks to the famous Texas Rancher, Charles "Charlie" Goodnight, and his wife, who saved the Bison from extinction in the 1800s. The saving of the Southern Plains Bison should Probably be mainly credited to his wife, Mary Ann "Molly" Goodnight. Charlie had toyed with the idea of breeding the Bison with his cows. He did have some success, but when he gave two calves to Molly to hand raise, she fell in love with them. Realizing that the Bison were well on the way to extinction, she vowed to have an established pure bison herd separate from her husband's "catalo." The herd thrived, and soon they had over 100 head of southern plains Bison on the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. Molly Goodnight made sure these stayed pure by keeping them separated in the confines of the Canyon.
In 1994 a conservationist named Wolfgang Frey heard about the Bison in Palo Duro. He convinced the State to have genetic testing on the herd of about 50 bison still on the ranch. This testing confirmed this was the last pure herd of Southern Plains Bison in the United States. The Bison were donated to the Caprock Canyons State Park in 1997 as a part of a conservation effort. Specimens from this herd can be seen in Yellowstone National park and zoos as well as private parties, donated or loaned from the State of Texas to add to the diversity of the herds.
Meanwhile, today, at the Caprock Canyons State Park, the State herd is protected within the park boundaries, which initially was a part of the JA Ranch that extended into Palo Duro, where the original herd was located. The Bison thrive there, living on the native grasses and scrub.These Bison, who share the DNA of their ancestors, but not the DNA of any other plains Bison in North America, must be preserved. Once a year, around November and December, they have a roundup where the Bison are fully vetted and given a clean bill of health before returning them to the wild.
Caprock Canyons State Park is open to the public year-round except on designated hunting days. Please refer to their website for designated closings and reservations. Although reservations are not required, they are encouraged as the park fills up fast. There are primitive campsites as well as those with hookups. They have fishing, swimming, hiking, and horseback riding. The highlight of most people's visit, however, is the Texas State Bison herd. They are allowed complete freedom in the park and often visit the campsites. They are wild animals, and you are encouraged to keep 50 yards from them at all times, which can prove difficult when one nonchalantly sticks his head in your tent. Learn more about these amazing animals by visiting the park and seeing these amazing creatures in person.