The Texas State Bison Herd—the only remaining herd of Southern Plains bison living wild on public land—is Caprock Canyons’ biggest draw.
There, some 250 shaggy brown bison roam the park’s prairielands, viewable to the visiting public.
These animals represent the only pure strain of the original Charles Goodnight herd, dating back to the 1870s, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Once numbering in the millions, bison were hunted to near-extinction during the “great slaughter” between 1874 and 1878. By some estimates, less than 1,000 bison remained in North America by 1888.
Tormented by the heartbreaking sounds of abandoned calves bawling for their mothers, Mary Ann Goodnight, famed Mother of the Texas Panhandle, begged her husband Charles to do what he could to rescue the surviving bison. The couple captured some of the orphaned calves and preserved them on their JA Ranch.
The Goodnight bison herd prospered and the initial herd of five to seven bison increased to 13 by 1887 and to more than 200 animals by the 1920s, reported Russell Roe of the Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. After the Goodnights’ deaths, the bison continued to roam the Panhandle plains in relative obscurity. Left on its own, the herd dwindled, and by 1994, only about 50 bison remained.
When the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department learned about the declining herd, a German wildlife conservationist with aa deep interest in American bison urged the agency to intervene. The department had its DNA tested. An A&M analysis confirmed that the bison DNA was different, and featured genetics that are not shared by any other bison in North America. These bison were indeed native Texas Panhandle bison and direct descendants of Goodnight’s herd. The genetic tests also revealed that the herd had low genetic diversity and was suffering the effects of inbreeding, according to TPWD.
Shortly thereafter, the JA Ranch donated the herd to Texas Parks and Wildlife, which relocated the bison to Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway in Briscoe County, about 100 miles southeast of Amarillo. Three bison bulls donated by media tycoon and rancher Ted Turner helped increase the herd’s genetic diversity, reported Russell Roe of the Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine.
Under TPWD management, which involves careful monitoring, selective breeding, annual health checks, vegetation studies and grazing control, the Texas State Bison Herd has grown to 250.
Today, bison roam 80% of the state park. Visitors might encounter them just about anywhere—at park headquarters, along the roadways, on trails, and even at the various campgrounds.
⛺ What to know when you go
Things to do: Besides marveling at the bison, you can hike, bike, or ride horseback on some 25 miles of trails that weave through the canyons. The park also replaces the 64-mile trailway, a former railway that’s been converted into a hiking trail. The trailway snakes through the 72-foot-long Clarity Tunnel, home to hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats. Not much for hiking? Try a scenic drive—Audio driving guides are available at park headquarters. Lake Theo offers no-wake boating, swimming and fishing. The waterhole is stocked regularly and you can borrow a fishing pole at park headquarters.
Bison-spotting: The bison herd stops by Lake Theo daily for a midday drink. Bison calves can be spotted between March and May. Bison rutting, or mating, season is at its peak in July and August. Bison are the largest land animal in North America. They’re huge and they require a wide berth. As a rule, bison require at least 50 yards (half a football field) between them and people, according to TPWD.
Eat: Score some solid diner food at the local greasy spoon, Bison Cafe, located at 114 West Main Street in Quitaque.
sleep: Park campsites range from drive up sites with electricity to hike-in primitive sites. If you like nature but don’t want to sleep in it, try the historic Hotel Turkey at 201 3rd Street in Turkey.
What to do next: Drive 10 miles to Turkey to visit the Bob Wills Museum, which displays the King of Western Swing’s fiddles and cowboy hats or hightail it to Canyon, about 90 miles northeast, to take in the sights at Palo Duro, the Grand Canyon of the Texas Panhandle .
Enter Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway at 850 Caprock Canyons State Park Road in Quitaque. For more information, call (806) 455-1492; texasstateparks.org.
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