Bison and Bears: Molly Goodnight and Bonnie McKinney
“On the day-long follows that I used to do with mothers and their offspring — these chimp families that I knew so well — there was hardly a day when I didn’t learn something new about them.”
– Jane Goodall
The Mother of the Panhandle
When you hear the name Goodnight, you might think of Charles Goodnight of Goodnight-Loving Trail fame and perhaps the Lonesome Dove character of Woodrow Call, purportedly based on the Panhandle cattleman.
Standing beside that legendary Texan is his wife, Molly, who casts a long shadow herself. “The Mother of the Panhandle” was known for a lifetime of service, but more importantly, as an early Texas conservationist for saving the Southern Plains buffalo from extinction.
Though born into a prominent Tennessee family, Molly (then Mary Ann Dyer) experienced hardship early in life. The large family moved to northeast Texas in 1854, and Molly’s life changed dramatically when her mother died 10 years later. Barely 25, she raised her three younger brothers (8 to 15), going it completely alone when her father died two years later.
Molly worked as a teacher in Weatherford, though she had never attended school of any kind.
“There were no colleges in Texas nor public schools either when I was a girl,” she told her niece later in life. “My only teachers were my father and mother, both of whom were well educated for their times. Then, too, I learned a lot from nature.”
A smitten Charles courted her but had nothing to offer, so he took off to pursue his fortune, returning five years later to marry his “Mary” — as only he called her — and make a family with her and the boys. Their early years were spent on a ranch near Pueblo, Colorado, later settling in the Texas Panhandle where Charles partnered with Irish financier John Adair in the fabled JA Ranch.
The red walls of Palo Duro Canyon blocked the cruel wind and contained the cattle naturally (though Charles was also an early user of barbed wire). Molly was the only woman for 75 miles in that remote land, and she busied herself “mothering” the ranch hands: mending clothes, teaching, bringing them food and her own brand of wilderness medicine: “coal-oil for lice, prickly pear for wounds, salt and buffalo tallow for piles, mud for inflammation and fevers, and buffalo meat broth for a general tonic.”
Molly immersed herself in the native flora and fauna of her new home, calling that time “the best days of my life.”
In appreciation, the hands pooled their money to buy “Aunt” Molly a silver tea service. Her favorite gift was far simpler: three pet chickens.
“No one can ever know how much pleasure and company they were to me,” she recalled later. “They would follow me everywhere I went. They tried to talk to me in their language.”
Courtesy Sarday Foundation
Molly Goodnight was instrumental in saving the Southern Plains bison by creating the Goodnight bison herd in Texas.
The crack of rifles and the wails of baby bison shattered her peace. Bison were vanishing because of overhunting, but 10,000 head lived deep in the canyon. Buffalo hunters wouldn’t kill the babies, and Molly decided to hand-raise the orphans. Charles roped two calves for her, a neighbor brought her two adult bison, her brother gave her three more calves, and the Goodnight herd was created.
In 1887, the Goodnights moved to a smaller ranch near the present-day town that bears their name, bringing along Molly’s bison herd, now at 250 head.
Nearly 50, Molly now enjoyed town life. She and Charles founded the Goodnight College; Molly let some students pay their tuition with beef and hides or by working in the school garden and dairy.
Molly Goodnight died in 1926, Charles three years later. Visitors tie bandanas on the cemetery chain-link fence by their graves as a cowboy tribute.
The bison live on. Animals from the herd were donated to American and European zoos and Yellowstone National Park.
The Charles Goodnight bison herd (credited incorrectly to her husband) was donated to TPWD and moved to Caprock Canyons State Park in 1997. Scientists studied their DNA, finding genetics not shared by any other bison in North America. Caprock’s official Texas State Bison Herd represents the last remaining examples of the Southern Plains bison.
Courtesy Bonnie McKinney
Bonnie McKinney’s career-long protection of wildlife in the borderlands of West Texas and Mexico includes trapping more than 200 black bears.
The Patron Saint of Black Bears
A modern-day Molly Goodnight, Bonnie McKinney roams the remote wilderness of a different Texas borderland to the southwest, fascinated by each living thing, inspired to preserve and protect. Like Molly, Bonnie works in total syncopation with her wildlife manager husband, Billy Pat, but is equally comfortable managing her own projects. Like Molly and her bison, Bonnie’s passion about one particular animal rises above all others.
Bears. Black bears. Bears that have — without any assistance from us — made their way back into the lower Big Bend region.
“Black bears, hands down, are the smartest mammal I have ever worked with,” she says. An array of photos of Bonnie with bears shows her affection for the once-extirpated species.
For four decades — first with TPWD on the Texas side of the border, then as wildlife coordinator for Mexican cement company Cemex in the Sierra del Carmen Mountains of northern Mexico, and now back in West Texas as wildlife coordinator for Cemex USA — Bonnie has led conservation efforts for all kinds of wild things in the borderlands. She’s conducted various wildlife research projects on peregrine falcons, bighorn sheep, elf owls and many other species of flora and fauna.
But, for Bonnie, it always comes back to bears. During a five-year project in Mexico, she trapped more than 200 bears and radio-collared 71 of them, providing valuable DNA research and information on the bears’ travels between Mexico and Texas.
Bonnie’s award-winning In the Shadow of The Carmens: Afield with a Naturalist in the Northern Mexican Mountains and a children’s book about one rowdy rescued bear that became a celebrity (The Legend of El Patron by Virginia Parker Staat) chronicle her work.
As it does with many, the biology bug bit early for Bonnie. Growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Appalachian Trail with a family full of naturalists meant days of hunting and fishing and gathering collections of specimens (her mother never knew what she’d find under Bonnie’s bed).
Like Molly Goodnight, Bonnie learned by doing, not by sitting in a classroom.
“My dad taught me so much about wildlife conservation,” she says. “Not only how to hunt and fish — he taught me how to take care of the wildlife.”
Bonnie’s dad showed her clearcutting of forests and talked to her about the impact.
“You know, these will never be like they were,” she recalls him saying. “You’d better look at them now because they will be gone.” And they are gone today.
“There’s an old saying I think about: ‘The hand of man taketh away, but he can also give back,’” Bonnie told David Todd of the Texas Legacy Project in 2001. “I think that today wildlife managers have to be able to compromise. We have to see problems before they happen, see the conflicts before they happen, and try to be able to have some sort of working solution that’s going to benefit everybody. The wildlife, the people … everybody’s going to have to work together.”
Bonnie doesn’t see herself retiring anytime soon, though she is a grandmother now. She’s the product of a lifetime of getting up every day hungry to learn more and working to protect the flora and fauna she loves.
“If your goals fit the lifestyle you’ve chosen, then you’re already ahead of the game,” she says.
Bonnie lives by her mom’s good advice: “Paddle your own canoe. Nobody’s going to do it for you.”
In honor of the ratification of the 19th amendment 100 years ago, we’ll spotlight 20 Wild Women of Texas Conservation during 2020.
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