- Associated Press - Friday, January 30, 2015

QUITAQUE, Texas (AP) - A full-grown bull briefly looks up from his meal as you drive through his territory.

The great creature briefly ponders the sight of you and your vehicle, then returns to the pasture on which he’s grazing.

Caprock Canyons State Park, northeast of Lubbock, is one of the few places you’re able to see buffalo, and you’re lucky you can even see them there. North America’s bison herd once thinned dangerously close to extinction.

“Bison were being slaughtered by the thousands,” Park Superintendent Donald Beard told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (https://bit.ly/1KemRfu ).

In the late 19th century, the country’s herd dwindled from somewhere between 30 million and 60 million to fewer than a thousand. Efforts helped save the species, but its numbers are still nothing close to what they were before the westward expansion of the frontier.

Now, Caprock Canyons’ 100 or so buffalo are considered Texas’ official bison herd. Since it began in 1997, the project has aimed to help the buffalo thrive again.

“One thing led to another and we started the restoration,” said Beard, who is also vice president of the Texas Bison Association. “Our goal is to return this park to what it would have looked like prior to European settlement.”

That means you can’t compare a buffalo trekking Caprock Canyons to, say, an African monkey at a Dallas zoo. Rather, the buffalo is in its natural home, and any humans at the park are just visiting.

With about 15,000 acres, the park contains plenty of grassland for the creatures to munch. Staff monitors their lifespans and brings them into a pen near the park’s entrance for annual health checks, but mainly just let them roam.

“They’ve got a lot of land,” Beard said. “It’s not just a bison restoration - it’s a habitat restoration.”

The hefty mammals wouldn’t have it any other way, either. Put them in close confinement and they’ll grow antsy.

“When you start crowding them, they get frustrated,” Beard said.

Their other personality characteristics are fairly positive, he said. Bison are known as smart and generally easy-going.

“They’re very intelligent, much more so than domestic cattle,” he said. “Their temperament is not bad at all, especially if they’ve got plenty of room.”

While you won’t see bison in many locations outside the park, the creatures were much easier to be found in the Lone Star State’s past.

“Historically, they ranged pretty well all over most of Texas,” said Wyman Meinzer, a photographer, historian and wildlife expert.

Meinzer, who lives in the tiny Knox County town of Benjamin, said four main herds of bison once roamed North America. Their nomadic nature, though, often caused those herds to overlap. The Texas herd, for instance, would often spend its summers in Kansas or Oklahoma, returning home as winter arrived.

“They were constantly on the move all the time - they did not stay in one area,” he said.

The Southern Plains and Llano Estacado areas could sustain about 3.5 million to 4 million head of buffalo, he said.

But even before highways and buildings interfered with their living space, bison had plenty of human contact.

Native American tribes such as the Great Plains, Apache, Kiowa and Comanche depended on buffalo meat as a main food source. Many used the animals’ hides to create housing, Meinzer said, and often as a form of a currency to barter other goods.

“They were completely intertwined in their existence,” he said, adding, “Whatever the Comanches needed, they traded buffalo hides for it.”

Soon after European settlers discovered the buffalo-skin market, the species was in trouble, Beard and Meinzer said. Some settlers viewed destroying the Native Americans’ food supply as a bonus, they said.

“They would take the hides and let the rest go to waste,” Beard said.

One of those hunters, J. Wright Mooar, claimed to have killed a white buffalo. The legend is thread into local lore in Snyder, and the albino buffalo is somewhat of an unofficial town mascot.

“In a nutshell, it’s our claim to fame,” said Paula Hatfield, chairwoman of the Scurry County Historical Commission. “We shouldn’t have killed the buffalo and we really shouldn’t have killed the white buffalo, but we cannot rewrite history and we cannot change history. We just need to remember to tell the story.”

As the bison’s population declined, wildlife advocates grew worried. A full century before the Endangered Species Act, some folks established refuges where the animals would be protected from hunters.

Among them were cattle ranchers Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight, whose Goodnight Buffalo Ranch in the Panhandle served as a tourist destination as well as a sanctuary.

“They took it upon themselves to start protecting the bison,” Beard said.


Information from: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, https://www.lubbockonline.com

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