- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - Bison once roamed the Great Plains by the millions and even made their way through North Texas.

But in a matter of years they were hunted to the brink of extinction, dropping from an estimated 30 million to 60 million as European settlers arrived in North America to around 1,000 by 1889.

While their numbers have recovered to around 500,000, there still aren’t that many places to see the American Bison, which was named the national mammal of the United States earlier this month.

Few are wild, and most are now part of private herds, including one at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, just off Jacksboro Highway near Lake Worth.

“It is our signature attraction,” Rob Denkhaus, the Nature Center’s natural resource manager, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (https://bit.ly/1XNzKHw ). “There is a bison head on our logo.”

On a recent afternoon the herd of a dozen bison, including a newborn calf, was attracting its share of admirers.

The 3,621-acre refuge, which dates back to 1964, hugs the West Fork of the Trinity River and includes 20 miles of trails, forests and wetlands. Yet for many, the bison are the reason to make the trip.

“If you were to ask an average visitor what’s their first thought when they think of this place, they would probably say bison,” Denkhaus said. “We’ve had them from as close as 5 miles to as far away as 5,000 miles come here. They just can’t get enough. I think my favorite was when we had a family from Russia that was in town and drove out here to see the bison.”

The herd began with a donation of three bison from Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in 1973. The Nature Center’s first bison calf, a heifer, was born on May 21, 1974.

The size of the herd has varied, climbing as high as the 30s. The refuge occasionally sells off some of the herd to keep it manageable for the 210-acre range.

To Denkhaus, the national mammal designation is well deserved.

“I can’t put my finger on what it does, but it pays respect,” Denkhaus said. “It gives the animal its due.”

The animal was integral to the American prairie, Denkhaus said.

“You can’t have a fully functioning prairie without the bison,” Denkhaus said. “And you can’t have the bison without the prairie.”

Early explorers often referred to bison as buffalo for their resemblance to the Asian and African buffalo.

At the Nature Center, they have seen native grasses, which are drought resistant, take over where the bison have grazed. After buying hay-bailing equipment during the last drought, they can now feed the bison without buying hay no matter how dry it gets.

The bison’s “big flat bulldozer of a head” was designed to push the snow away during North Dakota winters, permitting them to reach the grass underneath. Unlike sheep, the bison’s teeth nip off the tops of grasses rather than pulling out the roots.

And that’s not all.

“The fur that’s on them is used by birds for nesting once it falls off,” Denkhaus said. “Their hooves cut the surface of the soil, allowing water to infiltrate the soil. They’re also great for carrying seeds. If they were wild, those seeds might be dropped 10-15 miles away.”

Since their near-extinction, the bison have been an object of fascination and curiosity.

At Yellowstone National Park, visitors who tour the park often come to a standstill when bison block the roadways.

On May 9, the plight of a baby bison at the park became national news when some park guests loaded the animal in the back of a Toyota Sequoia and drove it to a park ranger station. The park guests apparently thought the bison was cold.

The bison was eventually euthanized when the herd rejected the animal.

Locally, a domesticated bison named Bullet living inside an Argyle home was recently sold on Craigslist.

Across Texas, herds can also be seen on private property, where ranchers are raising bison for their meat, which is considered a healthy alternative to beef. The Texas State Bison Herd can also be seen at Caprock Canyons State Park, where it represents one of the last remaining Southern Plains variety of the species.

The bison’s range once included North Texas, though Denkhaus said they weren’t a mainstay like in other parts of the Great Plains.

“We were certainly part of their full range,” Denkhaus said. “Historically, their range went into the far east as Kentucky, but we didn’t have a resident herd. They probably moved in and out. Our native prairies wouldn’t have (withstood) the abuse.”

Fort Worth played a dubious role in their slaughter.

In 1874, which “marked the seeming end of the great southern herd,” auctions in Fort Worth sold 200,000 bison hides “every day or two,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with one railroad company shipping “nearly 7 million pounds of buffalo bones.”

Fort Worth historian Quentin McGown said Cowtown’s role as distribution center cannot be ignored. Bison hides were stacked as high as two stories on the southern end of downtown.

“The sad part of the bison story is Fort Worth’s role, for a brief period, as the buffalo hide shipping center of the region,” McGown said. “It’s astonishing to think of how short a time it took to slaughter millions of animals to the brink of extinction.”

But attitudes have definitely changed.

“Bison is one of those species that people have a connection to without ever having seen it,” Denkhaus said, “Then, there are people who come here and have never thought about them and once they see them, they’re hooked.”

That’s also true of the Nature Center, where Denkhaus said they have their cadre of loyal volunteers and supporters through Friends of the Nature Center who have helped the place thrive. Then they have those who have driven by the place for decades and never been inside.

During the last fiscal year, the Nature Center saw 52,755 visitors. Officials are hoping for a slight “bump” in attendance from the national mammal designation.

“I’m a mammal guy,” Denkhaus said. “If you look at our cultural history, if you look at our natural history - North America does not exist in any way like it does today without the existence of bison.”

___

Information from: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, https://www.star-telegram.com

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