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Caprock Canyons Bison Herd to Become More Visible
QUITAQUE – The Wildlife Division of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has shifted management of the Caprock Canyons State Park bison herd to TPWD’s State Parks Division. Park employees say the shift will bring about some exciting changes, including expanding the grazing range of the official Texas State Bison Herd from a half-section enclosure to eventually the whole state park over time and thus increasing viewing opportunities for park visitors.
"One of the major requests we’ve had from visitors is they’d like to be able to see the bison better and get closer to them," said park Superintendent Donald Beard. “We worked with the Wildlife Division to devise a way to do that and still keep the herd ’wild’ and well-managed from a natural resource perspective. To enable better public viewing, the bison will be placed behind a new fence that will encompass the prairie around the Visitors Center and the southern portion of Lake Theo. The new enclosure will more than double the rangeland for the herd. We hope to continue to expand the range over much of the park as time and funds allow.”
That means once visitors come through the main entrance, they would in effect be inside the bison enclosure. The outside boundary fence will be a standard 60-inch field fence in combination with barbed wire backing and two strands of electric fence. Interior fences will be erected to protect historic sites, day use sites, the northern portion of Lake Theo and the more ecologically sensitive areas of the 15,300-acre park that is located where the Panhandle’s High Plains, or caprock, to the west collide with the Rolling Plains to the east.
“Safety for park visitors and staff is our top priority,” says Beard. “Our new bison management approach uses common sense to keep people and the animals safe.” To underscore his level of confidence, Beard notes his residence is located in the area where the bison will be enclosed. “I have respect for them, but I don’t see cause for concern for myself or my family.”
The herd, which currently numbers 78, will remain under the care of herdsman C. L. Hawkins, who transferred to the Wildlife Division when the herd came to the park in 1998 and has managed the herd ever since. Now back in the State Parks Division, Hawkins has been instrumental in seeing that new bison bulls from out of state have been incorporated into the Caprock Canyons herd to introduce new DNA in an effort to reduce a high mortality rate in newborn calves. Park officials and geneticists believe greater genetic diversity will result in a larger and healthier herd.
In addition to relocating the bison so they can be more readily viewed, park staff will increase educational signage, distribute informational brochures and present interpretive programs about the herd’s history, their impact on the prairie ecosystem and how to interact safely with the shaggy animals.
The Caprock Canyons bison are descendants of the historic bison herd that Panhandle ranchers Charles and Mary Goodnight saved from extinction. In 1876, Goodnight captured some of the last of the great southern plains bison herd and placed them on his JA Ranch to preserve them for posterity. In 1997, JA Ranch owners Monte Ritchie and Ninia Bivins donated the bison to the state, and they were moved to Caprock Canyons in 1998.
The small Texas State Bison Herd is thus all that remains of the vast southern plains herd that prior to the 1870s was estimated to number between 30 to 60 million head. The American bison were almost totally wiped out when the last of the Plains Indians were driven from their homeland and the railroad brought hordes of buffalo hunters who slaughtered the animals for their meat, hides and horns.
The Goodnight Herd was one of the five foundation herds that supplied stock to save American bison from extinction and the only southern plains bison herd established. Caprock Canyons bison are the last descendants of the herd which supplied wild stock for Yellowstone National Park and some of the largest zoos and ranches in the nation. The bison brought from the JA Ranch to the park were genetically tested, and TPWD kept only those which had no cattle DNA.
Through continued study and genetic mapping of the Texas State Bison Herd, researchers have isolated three unique genetic markers in their DNA. Found only in the Goodnight Herd descendants, presence of these genes supports the claim that these animals are all that remain of the southern plains subspecies and are separate from northern plains and woods bison subspecies.
In addition to the historic bison herd, Caprock Canyons State Park offers visitors a breathtakingly beautiful place to experience geologic history than spans 250 million years and enjoy such recreational activities as camping, hiking, mountain biking, nature photography and horseback riding. Its companion Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park offer 64 miles of converted railroad beds for recreational uses and the historic Clarity Tunnel, home to a large colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats.
Caprock Canyons State Park is located about 50 miles northeast of Plainview on FM 1065 approximately 4 miles north of State Highway 86. For more information, call (806) 455-1492 or visit the TPWD Website.
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