As we bumped over the cattle guard into Caprock Canyons State Park, the fog lifted, and we laid eyes on one of the five founding herds that all bison in North America stem from. Although the herd is top priority in the park presently, prior to public land and conservation initiatives, that was not the case. In the mid-19th-century hide hunters ravaged the species. Big business needed machinery, machinery needed belts to run, and bison hide just so happened to make some mighty fine belts. As the 20th century rolled around, there were only around 1,000 bison left in North America. Most ranchers saw the bison that were left as a nuisance to their cattle operations, but Mary Ann Goodnight, the wife of West Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight, saw the decline in bison numbers and asked her husband to bring her some of the orphan bison calves he ran across while working the JA Ranch.
Taking a 10,000-year step back in time, bison were a coveted species, as they are today. The Folsom people that inhabited the area had a deep-rooted relationship with these animals. Inside of the Caprock Canyons State Park boundaries we see evidence of this powerful connection at the Lake Theo Folsom Bison Kill site. In the mid 1970’s archeologists unearthed bones from 12 Bison antiquus (the ancestor of the modern-day bison), as well as tools, and believed that specific area had been used for some sort of formal ceremony. The bison had a profound impact on the Folsom people, as well as many native groups. In the 19th century, those feeling faded in lieu of the value of a hide, thus creating a profoundly negative impact on their population. Luckily, a few people across the United States and Canada began to care about the rapidly declining populations of bison across the plains. Some of those individuals included the Goodnight family who began to raise some of the calves from the mostly ruined Southern Plains herd. That was the beginning of humans and bison rekindling a once cherished bond. The herd that now traverses Caprock Canyons are direct descendants of the animals Goodnight brought to his wife so many years ago.
In 1996 the park started their herd with 32 bison, today that number has grown to around 150. Removing as many stressors as possible has been a chief principal in the growth of the herd. Combating invasive mesquite and juniper to try and restore the native grasses, placing supplemental water throughout the park, and working the bison similarly to cattle have all played a vital role in sustainability. The modern-day facilities, designed by the famed Temple Grandin, are used only once a year, which is all that is necessary for free ranging bison. Around January most of the animals are slowly gathered into a 300 acre pen, and then are sorted in smaller pens. Just as is with cattle, the bison receive vaccinations and pregnancy checks. Where the process differs is in the collection of genetic samples from each member of the herd. These samples allow the park to keep track of the lineage of every bison roaming inside of Caprock Canyons. Donald Beard, the park’s superintendent, informed us that the goal was to grow the herd to around 1,000 animals. However, the usable land inside the park can only support around 300 bison. When that bridge is ready to be crossed, they plan to seek out places to have satellite herds. Those herds will be managed on a daily basis by whomever owns the land, but overall will be managed with the original Caprock Canyons herd as a metapopulation.
Beard has been with Caprock Canyons State Park for 10 years now and exemplifies the purposeful relationship between bison and humans. Every day he drives his Texas Parks and Wildlife pickup through the gate and sees the herd, he feels connected to them. The bison have made such an impact on Donald’s life that he now raises bison on his own land, and even has a bison tattooed on his arm. We could see his admiration for the animals as he glanced at a bachelor group that had hopped a fence into the pen area for some fresh hay. We watched his moment of admiration transition into his managerial duties as he chased them back into the pasture and marked the fence to be repaired.
Bison hopping a fence.
The park has seen a massive increase in visitors due to the popularity of the bison. In 2010, 36,000 people stopped by Caprock Canyons. This number grew to a staggering 110,000 last year alone as word of the thriving native Texas bison herd spread far and wide. Yes, the canyon is breathtaking, and the bison are a conservation success story, but none of it would be possible without public land, and the dedicated employees that take care of it and implement these management and conservation strategies on a daily basis. For that, we’d like to extend our thanks!
Tristin Montana Lain is a freelance photographer based out of the Texas Panhandle. Originally his inspiration was drawn from the vibrant West Texas sunsets that painted the sky in his hometown. As the years pressed on, Tristin stumbled upon a deep love for capturing untamed images of western heritage and the outdoors. Consumed by producing media that conveys the seldom noticed backbone of a true Western lifestyle and the majesty of the natural world around us, he is always brewing up ideas for stories that deserve telling, camera in hand of course.
Hailing from South Texas, Max Westheimer is an all-around outdoorsman and published writer. What began as a love for hunting whitetail in the brush country, and fishing the Gulf Coast has now evolved to a widespread passion for all things outdoors, with his main devotions belonging to fly fishing, mountain biking, and bird hunting. His heart has long been bedded in the mountains, and his hands find work in writing about those adventures that often lurk in the shadows of the American adventure scene. Driven by a hunger to taste what’s out there, and fueled by carne guisada and black coffee, Westheimer is constantly cutting trails to find the unturned stones that hide themselves under open skies.