On the rugged verge of the caprock in Briscoe County, visitors will find some of the most dramatic highway vistas in Texas (especially along TX 86 and TX 207). And in the lush, creek-drained valley below the cliffs roams the state’s official bison herd at Caprock Canyons State Park.
On a morning in late July when the Texas Plains Trail 50th Anniversary Caravan rolled into the park, superintendent Donals Beard welcomed our line of vehicles to follow him down to the amphitheater overlook. “I’m pretty sure I know where you’ll spot part of the herd,” he said.
Turning down the steep curve beside Lake Theo, we nearly ran into it. Single-file, several cows with calves trod up from the water and across the pavement behind a massive bull and a few other type-A specimens. Jaws dropped as we watched the magnificent animals parade directly in front of the lead driver’s grille. Traffic remained stopped for five or 10 minutes until the herd disappeared into the brush.
“Bison jam!” cried one passenger in amazement.
Beard motioned us on across. “I know right where they’re going,” he called out.
No sooner had our vehicles pulled into the lot half a mile farther along than the remnant emerged onto the shoulder beside us and rejoined the main herd on their way to a favorite grazing area. The big bull, Beard explained, likely weighed in at around 1,800 pounds — half the bulk of one of our fully loaded SUVs.
Spring weather had been wet and the herd fertile, Beard told us. Thirty to 40 new calves, now two or three months old, had augmented a herd of some 200 animals.
The modern-day bison has long been a symbol of the vast land area of the North American continent — and a symbol of U.S. might on the nickel coins first minted in 1913.
But the animals, commonly called buf- falo in this country, were nearly exterminat- ed during hunts to clear the plains for white settlement and the railroad by the 1870s. Concurrently, habitat was lost to farming, and at the outset of 1889 only 456 North American bison — out of some 30 million to 60 million — were known to exist.
Caprock Canyons was first designated a state park in 1982, and by 1997 it welcomed a remnant of the only pure herd remaining. The plan to rebuild the herd and its native habitat was underway.
Jammin’ for the Bison
Today, to raise funds for restoration of park- lands to prairie landscape, in 2012 Caprock Canyons State Park staff and the citizens of nearby Quitaque launched BisonFest, an all- day music and arts festival featuring some of Texas’ most popular Americana and country artists. It’s now designated as the official Texas State Bison Music Festival, which will occur this year on Sept. 28.
The event is a great place to kick back and enjoy food, fun and entertainment while supporting a worthy cause.
The music fest begins around 4:30 p.m. and will last until nearly midnight — Kevin Fowler is the headliner — while the arts and crafts festival opens at 10 a.m.
I spoke with Beard recently about the experience of reintroducing bison to Southern Plains parkland — and the importance of restoring grasslands.
Tell us a little about Caprock Canyons State Park and how the land was used before it was acquired by Texas Parks & Wildlife.
The last landowner was Theo Gisler, who owned the land from the 1950s until the ’70s.
Historically, this was right in the middle of Comanchería; it was wintering grounds for Quanah Parker and the Quahada band of Comanches. It was also the wintering grounds for the great herds of Southern Plains Bison.
I understand that previous land use drastically affected the native landscape and reduced biodiversity dramatically. What was the situation back then?
This land once supported vast numbers of bison in a high-intensity, low-duration rate of grazing. Herds would move through, then, once they left, there would be a large recovery period.
Once Europeans took control of the territory and introduced domestic cattle along with continuous grazing, the land no longer had the long recovery period, and you’d see a larger percentage of bare ground. This, along with no longer allowing the natural process of burning, was a perfect recipe for the invasion of woody species such as mesquite and juniper.
How did the idea of bringing the bison herd to Caprock Canyons arise?
The herd originated in 1878 by Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight. It had been kept as a closed herd, with the genetics unique to these animals.
After Charles’ death, the animals returned to the canyons and once again became a wild, free-ranging herd on the JA Ranch. The later owners of the ranch, wishing to protect the animals, donated them to the state.
The citizens of Quitaque, seeing the historical value of protecting these animals, lobbied to have them brought to Caprock Canyons State Park in 1997, when 32 animals made the journey and became the foundation members of the Texas State Bison Herd.
Over time, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has been watching and protecting the herd as its numbers grew.
The herd was reintroduced into the park as free-ranging wildlife beginning in 2011, and now numbers approximately 250.
One study noted that “as little as 1% of native prairies exist today in North America.” Why are bison and other native species so important to maintain in our public lands?
Our state and federal governments have done a wonderful job protecting areas with majestic views — Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and others — but have failed in protecting the native prairies of North America.
These grasslands, used as farmland throughout modern history, have been described as the “breadbasket” of the nation.
The conversion of native prairie to farmland began in earnest during the turn of the 20th century. Many people today have never witnessed the beautiful sight of endless tall-grass prairie mottled with the national mammal of the United States, the North American Bison.
How do guests respond to the bison herds?
The bison may look like large, lumbering animals but in fact are very mobile, capable of speeds around 40 miles per hour. They can charge in an instant and without warning when they feel threatened.
Park visitors need to understand that when they’re at Caprock, they’re in the midst of a wild preserve. The bison, along with all other animals in the park, are protected, and it’s illegal to feed, harm or harass them.
When a bison is encountered, the best action is to step aside, get out your camera and take some really awesome pictures of your visit.
Keep in mind that the minimum dis- tance you should approach bison is 50 yards, but the bison don’t always adhere to this policy! Keep calm, and wait for them to pass. Don’t attempt to “shoo” them or show any other form of apparent aggression.
BisonFest raises funds and awareness to support ongoing restoration of park habitat. What are future plans for Caprock Canyon lands?
More than just a bison restoration. Our goal is to restore the habitat, including the species of animals who once inhabited it. Just imagine watching the sun come up and looking across the Eagle Point basin to see herds of bison and pronghorn grazing through prairie-dog towns that are home to animals such as burrowing owls, badger, and perhaps even the black-footed ferret.
In what other ways can Texans and park visitors help?
We encourage friends to join our non-profit support group, Caprock Partners Foundation, and donate directly to this and other awesome park projects at caprockpartnersfoundation.com.
Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway
850 Caprock Canyon Rd.
Quitaque, TX 79255
Sat., Sept. 28