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Where the Buffalo Roam

At Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway, the official Texas State Bison Herd sets the mood for a true Wild West adventure.

By Elaine Robbins

"No more buffalo/blue skies or open road," sings James McMurtry in his ballad No More Buffalo. McMurtry apparently hasn't been to Caprock Canyons. In this Panhandle park, you can still find classic John Wayne scenery and a Wild West experience far from the madding crowds.

Where the grasslands of the High Plains give way to red rock canyons, you can hitch up your horse — or mountain bike — and ride across the wide-open spaces under endless blue skies. In this setting, it doesn't come as a surprise when you first glimpse buffalo (bison) grazing in the distance.

But even though McMurtry's lyrics aren't entirely literal, there is trouble brewing under this big blue sky, as there usually is in the world of the Hollywood western. This historic herd — the remnants of the herd that Panhandle cattleman Charles Goodnight started in 1876 — faces an uncertain future. Down from a peak of 250 in 1933, the herd now numbers just 59 animals, and recent birth rates have been disappointing.

When James Derr, associate professor of veterinary pathobiology with Texas A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine, was called in to help, he suspected that genetic inbreeding caused by more than a century of geographic isolation was the culprit. "Bison are incredibly fertile animals," says Derr. "Almost every other bison herd has the problem of excess animals. Right now there's probably a couple thousand too many bison at Yellowstone or Wind Cave National Park or Badlands National Park or the National Bison Range in Montana. But when we go to Caprock Canyons, that's not what we see."

Using sophisticated DNA technology, Derr tested the genetic variation in the Caprock Canyons bison herd. "We found out they had significantly less genetic variation than any of the federal herds and most of the state and private herds." Natalie Halbert, a postdoctoral research associate in veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University, created computer models to simulate potential outcomes for the herd. "Given the current problems with natality and mortality and the lack of genetic variation at present," she says, "it's most likely in the next 50 years the population is probably not going to survive."

But now media mogul and conservationist Ted Turner is riding to the rescue. It seems fitting that the man who helped preserve many classic western movies is now helping biologists save another icon of the American West. In 2003, Turner donated three young bulls from one of his New Mexico herds. This summer, one of the bulls was bred to several females from the Goodnight herd. "We hope to inject some genetic variability without altering the unique DNA of this herd," says Danny Swepston, who oversees the Caprock herd as the TPWD's Panhandle wildlife district leader.

If the experiment is a success, it will lead to a more stable future for the historic herd, believed to be the last of the great Southern Plains bison herd, which was split from the northern herd in the 19th century, when the transcontinental railroad was built. Although most people associate the bison with places like South Dakota and Yellowstone, it is actually a Texas native species that ranged most of the state. (The Yellowstone herd was actually started, in part, with animals from Texas's Goodnight herd.) "People think of the Panhandle as being the only prairie area, but if you look at an ecological map, you'll see that we had the Blackland Prairie, the Cross Timbers area, the Gulf Coast Prairie," says Swepston. "Bison covered, in varying degrees, every part of Texas except the Trans-Pecos and parts of the Pineywoods of East Texas. In fact, the first sighting of a bison in Texas by a European was just west of Houston."

Bison were ideally suited to the prairie. They thrived on the rich native grasses. As they moved, their hooves tilled the earth, and their dung fertilized it. Their wallows and hoof prints held water that sustained other species. Since they traveled more than cattle do, they improved rather than degraded the land. "They didn't have clear migration patterns like, say, the wildebeest in Africa's Rift Valley," says Derr. "They were moving to find the best and most nutritious grasses."

Although 100 years of isolation — first on Goodnight's JA Ranch and now on the state park — has threatened their genetic variability, Derr believes this resilient creature will survive the current challenge. "Really, bison should have become extinct with all the other large mammals at the end of the Pleistocene," he says. "But clearly bison are a survivor species. They survived numerous population crashes in the past where they completely disappear from the fossil record. I think their genetic architecture provides them the ability to survive population crashes of that nature."

Riding the Range

But travelers to Caprock Canyons State Park will find more than bison — and a new pair of genes — to set the Wild West mood. You can soar across the landscape with the windows down in your pickup truck while playing the ballads of The Flatlanders — Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. For sheer scenery, it's hard to beat the 55-mile Quitaque-Silverton-Turkey loop. (Quitaque, pronounced KITTY-kway, is the nearest town to the park.) Stop along the way in Turkey, former home of the king of western swing, Bob Wills, and peer in at the Bob Wills Museum and the old-time 1927 Hotel Turkey.

The 6-mile drive along the park road offers terrific canyon views. A new observation platform will include viewing scopes for peering down at a portion of the herd in the new 28-acre bison addition to the breeding facilities. The distance between the viewing platform and the pen gives the bison the chance to live in a wild state.

The 64-mile converted rail-trail invites horseback riders and mountain bikers. The park staff at Caprock provides water stations for horses, but bring plenty of potable water for humans. To complete the backcountry experience, bring a bedroll and camp along the trailway.

For beginning bikers, the best stretch is the 5-mile route from Monk's Crossing to the 742-foot-long Clarity Tunnel, a former railroad tunnel now listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is home to a colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats.

But the most spectacular segment is the 17-mile, one-way trip from South Plains to Monk's Crossing. Park at Monk's Crossing and catch a shuttle to South Plains. From there, the route starts in the cotton fields of the High Plains but it quickly turns to the red rock of the Caprock Escarpment. Pedal through the beautiful Quitaque Creek valley and then head through the Clarity Tunnel. Along the way, you'll cross steep canyons and lovely cottonwood creeks. Keep a sharp eye out for mule deer, African Aoudad sheep, white-tailed deer and bobcats.

Besides the trailway, there are 26 more miles of trails in the park itself. The seven-mile Upper Canyon Trail — for hikers only — takes you deep into South Prong and North Prong canyons. Leave the Tevas at home: There's a good reason John Wayne wore cowboy boots (think rattlesnakes). The trail begins in the canyon bottom, where it crisscrosses a sandy, meandering creek. Next, a steep climb sends you scrambling up the canyon walls. When you make it panting to the top, you'll be rewarded with an expansive view of a remnant piece of High Plains. Traverse the shortgrass prairie and then descend into North Prong Canyon. There, you can cool down at Fern Cave, a seeping overhang quivering with maidenhair ferns. Descend to the canyon bottom, where Rocky Mountain junipers provide just enough shade relief to prepare you for the last leg of the hike. The final trek across a sun-baked Badlands landscape brings to mind a Gary Larson cartoon in which two vultures quip over a carcass, "At least it's a dry heat."

If you like a less strenuous park experience, Caprock offers swimming, boating and fishing in Lake Theo. Or you can just pull up your RV or Range Rover, toss some grub on the grill and sit back and enjoy the spectacular sunset. As the sun sets, raise a toast to the great herds that once thundered across the prairies and plains. Perhaps someday soon they'll be restored to their place on the prairie to roam wild once again.

Back from the Brink

The bison you see today are survivors of a troublesome chapter in U.S. wildlife history: the near extermination of the great herds. Millions of bison once thundered across the prairies and plains of the American West. Just picture what one observer saw on an 1871 cattle drive through the Panhandle: "On a plain about halfway between the Red Fork and the Salt Fork we had to stop our herds until the buffalo passed. Buffalo, horses, deer, antelope, wolves and some cattle were all mixed together and it took several hours for them to pass, with our assistance, so we could proceed with our journey. I think there were more buffalo in that herd than I ever saw of any living thing, unless it was an army of grass-hoppers in Kansas in July 1874."

The slaughter that followed was spurred by a combination of factors: demand for buffalo robes, simple bloodlust and a deliberate campaign to decimate the Plains Indians, who stood between the settlers and the rangeland they coveted. Wrote Wyman Meinzer in these pages in May 1998: "Fueled by the European demand for robes and industrial leather, the slaughter of the Texas bison herd began in earnest in spring of 1874. By late 1878, buffalo hunters had killed more than 3.5 million of these animals across the Texas plains. When the big Sharps rifles finally fell silent, only a few hundred animals remained."

Mary Ann Goodnight, the wife of Panhandle cattleman Charles Goodnight, realized that the slaughter was sending the buffalo to the brink of extinction. She urged her husband to save a few of the animals, and he captured five wild bison calves to start the herd in 1876. The herd was donated to the TPWD in 1997 by the JA Ranch. San Angelo State Park and Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site also have bison, but they are not part of the official state herd.

Today bison populations have rebounded to about 350,000 to 400,000 head living in public and private herds. All of them are descendants of five foundational herds established in the late 1880s to save the species from extinction.

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