Home on the Range
Visitors can now get a closer look at the historic bison herd at Caprock Canyons.
By Rob McCorkle
Visitors to Caprock Canyons State Park on the Rolling Plains can enjoy a “Yellowstone-type experience” now that the Texas State Bison Herd has been allowed to graze on open range on more than 700 acres near the park entrance.
Once confined to a holding pen on 300 acres of the park, where they could be viewed at a distance from an overlook near the visitors center, the 80 descendants of the great southern plains bison herd were released in September to roam the grasslands below the escarpment in what park Superintendent Donald Beard describes as a “semi-free-ranging state.”
“This is first and foremost a restoration project, not an exhibit,” Beard asserts. “We’re not just showing the bison but are restoring an indigenous animal to its native habitat.”
The shaggy beasts, which can weigh up to a ton, can be found grazing and lolling about the restored prairie inside the park in front of the visitor center and on the north and south sides of nearby Lake Theo. For safety and environmental reasons, the bison are fenced off from the lake’s campground and day use area.
Beard says safety and education are the watchwords for the first phase of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s bison restoration project, which one day aims to have the bison roaming all 15,000 acres of the state park. Visitors will see numerous signs warning them to keep a safe distance (no closer than 50 feet) from the bison and not to feed the animals.
The public has been clamoring for a chance to view the bison up close ever since the remnants of legendary Panhandle pioneer rancher Charles Goodnight’s historic bison herd were introduced to the park in 1998, Beard says. The Goodnight herd was one of five foundation herds that supplied stock to save American bison from extinction and represents the last of the southern plains bison herd.
“People need to keep in mind when they’re viewing these magnificent animals that the Texas State Bison Herd represents a distinctive genetic entity that is integral to any effort to conserve the south plains bison,” notes Texas state parks natural resources director David Riskind. “The southern herd is a culturally, and now genetically, distinct subset of the plains bison. Its conservation value is highly significant.”
To learn more, call the park at (806) 455-1492 or visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/caprockcanyons.