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Last of Their Kind

The Texas State Bison Herd, a legacy of Charles Goodnight, helps a species crawl back from the brink of extinction

After long days listening to shots ring out across the Texas Panhandle plains, Mary Ann Goodnight would lie awake, tormented by the cries of orphaned bison calves. It was the late 1870s, and professional hide hunters were obliterating the country’s bison population.

Known as the “great slaughter,” hunting from 1874 to 1878 left the iconic animals nearly extinct, with estimates from 1888 suggesting that fewer than 1,000 bison remained in North America—down from the 30 million–60 million that once roamed the continent.

But it was the wails of those abandoned calves bawling for their mothers night after night—heartbreaking sounds that Goodnight described in diary entries from the time—that spurred her to act in 1878. The wife of cattleman Charles Goodnight, the famed Texas Panhandle rancher, pleaded with her husband to rescue what he could of the surviving bison.

The couple had settled in Palo Duro Canyon in 1876, and within two years, hunters had nearly wiped out the animals. That’s when Mary Ann Goodnight persuaded her husband to capture some of the orphaned calves and start a herd on their JA Ranch. The Goodnight bison herd prospered and grew to more than 200 animals by the 1920s. After the Goodnights’ deaths (Mary Ann in 1926, Charles in 1929), the bison continued to roam the vast and rugged landscape of the JA Ranch. Though Charles Goodnight sold his interest in the JA operation in the late 1880s and started a new ranch on nearby land, the bison ultimately migrated back to their original home.

Left on its own, the herd dwindled, and by 1994, only about 50 animals remained. When the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department learned about the declining herd in the mid-1990s from an unlikely source—Wolfgang Frey, a German wildlife conservationist with a particular interest in American bison—the agency conducted DNA testing on the bovines, revealing genetic markers not found in any other bison. Because Goodnight never brought in any bison from other areas and kept detailed records to prove it, all the animals in his herd were native Texas Panhandle bison. These animals, direct descendants of the herd started by Goodnight, were the last surviving examples of southern Plains bison.

Bison at Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway.

Earl Nottingham | TPWD

Convinced that the historic herd was worth saving, the owners of the JA Ranch donated the bison to TPWD, and in 1997 they were relocated to Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway in Briscoe County, about 100 miles southeast of Amarillo, on land that is part of the bison’s native home range.

After two decades of TPWD management, what has become known as the Texas State Bison Herd has grown to almost 300 animals, thanks to selective breeding, annual health checks, vegetation studies and progressive habitat management practices. The donation of three bison bulls in 2003 by media tycoon and rancher Ted Turner helped broaden the herd’s genetic diversity.

The bison’s road to recovery was a long one. “When the park got them, there were 32,” says Donald Beard, park superintendent at Caprock Canyons. “And then when I took over, there were probably around 60 or so, and that was in 2009. Then we released them into the park in 2011, and that’s when they really started to flourish.”

Before the 2011 release, the bison were enclosed in a 300-acre section of the park, far from view of Caprock Canyons’ 100,000 yearly visitors. In September 2011 the bison were moved into more than 700 acres of restored native grass prairie but still were fenced off from the park’s campsites and day-use areas.

Now the bison roam 80% of the park. “The park total is almost 15,000 acres, and they have almost 12,000 acres of it to roam,” Beard says. “There is one section, which is on the opposite side of a county road, that they don’t have access to, but other than that, they’ve got free run of this park. That means through the campsites, through the trails, on Lake Theo—everywhere. This is their historic range.”

Today’s visitors to Caprock Canyons State Park, which is served by Lighthouse Electric Cooperative, might be greeted at park headquarters by dozens of the massive, shaggy creatures. From a distance, they appear like black specks on the wide-open prairie, but when they approach the parking lot to graze and explore, an up-close view emphasizes their sheer magnificence: the broad hump between their shoulder blades; their thick, dark brown fur; and their awe-inspiring size. The bison is the largest mammal native to North America, and the bulls at Caprock Canyons can reach up to 2,000 pounds, with cows averaging 750–900 pounds. And even though some refer to the animals as buffalo because of their similar appearance, the only true buffaloes reside in Africa and Asia.

The state herd of about 300 descends from bison raised by Charles Goodnight in the 1800s.

Earl Nottingham | TPWD

Driving through the park, it’s clear who’s the boss. If the bison feel like lounging on the roadway, well, so be it—traffic stops and drivers watch and wait. Hikers might also encounter them on the trails that weave through the park’s striking red rock canyons, and campers might wake up to a crew of bison ambling outside their tents. Visitors to the park enjoyed a special treat in spring 2021, when about 80 bison calves joined the herd. “It’s pretty neat when you get a bunch of calves out, running around and playing,” Beard says. “It’s a really good time to be here, come April or May.”

Now that the herd is growing at a rate the park can sustain (to keep from degrading the grounds’ natural resources, the current herd of about 300 is close to the park’s max), Beard and his team are working on phase two of Caprock Canyons’ bison conservation program. “To me, that second phase is satellite herds,” he says. “So we would have another herd of 200 here, another herd of 300 there, but a herd of just Goodnight animals. And they would all be managed as one big herd—a metapopulation basically.”

Though there’s a herd of bison at San Angelo State Park in West Texas, those animals aren’t related to Goodnight’s. In fact, Beard notes, anytime an animal leaves the grounds of Caprock Canyons, it’s no longer considered part of the Texas State Bison Herd.

Beard—who sits on several boards for bison conservation, including the Bison Specialist Group, a species survival commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature—is in talks with the InterTribal Buffalo Council to start herds on tribal lands with Goodnight animals. He’s also looking at how partnerships could work with the Nature Conservancy, other nongovernmental organizations and even private ranchers. “There’s a big-picture vision in place,” he says. “The plan hasn’t been completely put together yet, but the vision is there.”

So what has the plight of the Goodnight herd taught wildlife conservation experts? The way Beard sees it, it’s been a lesson in survival. Around the same time Goodnight was forming his bison herd, four other conservation-minded individuals across the American West and in parts of Canada were doing the same. The five foundation herds helped save bison from extinction by providing the foundation stock for today’s herds. Though Goodnight’s herd was small, it was one of the best known of the five foundation herds.

“[The Goodnight herd] has taught us that we can come back with a relatively small number of animals to a healthy, viable population,” Beard says. “To be a success story in conservation, the IUCN and some of the other conservation organizations have said that you need a couple of thousand head of bison, which means that if we were to walk away and not touch this herd ever again, they would survive. We’re not there yet, but we’re well on our way.”