Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Icons of the West

Caprock Canyons bison are descended from the herd of legendary rancher Charles Goodnight.

The Plains bison, with its woolly flanks, upturned horns and baleful stare, is a revered and protected symbol of the American West. But in the 1800s, these animals came dangerously close to extinction. The nearly 300 bison that make up the Texas State Bison Herd are living history of a brutal past — and the care and compassion of conservationists.

The Great Plains of Texas have hosted bison for generations, and Native people relied on them as an essential food source. When white settlers arrived in Texas, bison were plentiful.

“I’ve read accounts of bison herds that could stretch 10 miles wide and 100 miles long,” says Donald Beard, Caprock Canyons State Park superintendent. “If you were standing on top of a hill looking out at the Texas Panhandle, all you could see would be bison.”

That began to change in the late 1800s when commercial hunters arrived on the Plains to profit off the animals. Unlike the Native Americans, who often used every part of the bison, these hunters would use only a fraction — typically the hide, which was used to make conveyor belts and other leather goods, and the tongue, which was sold as a delicacy.

In 1872, 20,000 bison were killed in the Texas Panhandle alone, and by 1895, only 541 bison were left of the millions that used to roam the plains.

Often, hunters would kill mother bison and leave the babies alone on the Plains. Mary Ann “Molly” Goodnight, married to the legendary Texas rancher and cattleman Charles Goodnight, was haunted at night by the cries of the abandoned baby bison.

The Goodnights saw the value in conserving the animals, and in 1878 Charles Goodnight rescued a handful of bison calves — around five to seven — and began his own herd.

Those orphaned calves are the ancestors of today’s Texas herd. Since the 1800s, they’ve moved around the Panhandle, spending time on the Goodnights’ JA Ranch and venturing into the wilds of Palo Duro Canyon. In 1996, the JA Ranch donated the herd to the state, and the herd — only 32 animals at the time — was relocated to Caprock Canyons State Park.

The 300-strong Texas State Bison Herd is now living any bison’s dream — they roam free in their rugged park, eating grass and other native greenery that grows in the red dirt of the canyon, checking out the campsites of unsuspecting visitors and rubbing their necks on their “official” scratching post.

“They have done so well,” Beard says. “You go out and look at them now, and they are fat and happy and slick. They’ve flourished.”  

  Maegan Lanham | TPWD


The bison herd roams free in the park, which means they walk on park roads and sometimes cause traffic jams. Remember, bison always have the right of way.


To tell if you’re too close, hold your thumb at arm’s length — if it doesn’t completely cover a bison, you should back up.


Bison may communicate anxiety, agitation or disapproval through raising their tails up in a question mark, pawing the ground or lowering their heads.

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