By David Bowser
QUITAQUE, Texas The last free-roaming buffalo of the Great Southern Herd have been penned.
A little more than three dozen head of a historic herd gathered from buffalo that roamed the plains have been penned behind heavy timbers and oilfield cable at Caprock Canyons State Park here.
The hope, according to Texas biologists, is that the herd can be used to reproduce a larger herd that will once again roam freely in the area.
"Bison were one of the most common large mammals found in the United States prior to settlement," says Danny Swepston, wildlife district leader of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for the Panhandle district. "They occurred from southern Canada to Northern Mexico, from the base of the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Coast. In Texas, they occupied roughly two-thirds of the state from around the Pecos River eastward almost to the Louisiana line."
They were not found in some densely wooded areas or right along the coast. However, the first Spanish explorers reported buffalo within a few miles of the Texas coast when they first arrived here.
By 1850, most of the buffalo had been removed from the central part of Texas. The big hunts that started in the late 1870s resulted in the removal from the remaining part of the state from San Angelo northward.
About 1878, Charles Goodnight's wife encouraged him to preserve some of the remaining buffalo in the Panhandle.
Goodnight had helped establish the JA Ranch with John Adair in Palo Duro Canyon.
In 1878, Goodnight roped two calves from one of the remnant herds and in subsequent years obtained other animals, many of them single animals from other ranchers who had captured them over the years, Swepston says.
"He started with seven head; five survived," Swepston continues. "From that herd he built a group of about 250 head. When he left the JA, he established his buffalo breeding facility at the little town of Goodnight."
Goodnight was not only interested in preserving the species, but he was also looking at them as an economic resource.
He sold breeding stock, Swepston notes, and worked with hybridization. He crossed them with cattle, trying to produce a better grazing animal. He crossed them with Hereford cattle and Angus cattle.
"However, he found that this was really not a profitable operation," Swepston says. "The losses of cows and calves were extremely high. The F-1 bulls were sterile."
Goodnight discontinued the crossbreeding program after several years.
In addition to selling breeding stock, Goodnight also donated breeding stock to help re-establish herds in other parts of the United States, primarily Yellowstone National Park and the New York Zoological Society.
Eventually, the buffalo that went to the New York Zoological Society went to the Ouachita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge.
"He also sold animals as far away as Germany," Swepston says. "He shipped some in there just prior to World War I."
Goodnight was also in the buffalo meat business. He usually slaughtered the animals around Christmas and shipped them as far as Arizona, Oklahoma and Kansas. He sold hides, skulls and trophies.
"He was into it strictly as a business, and it was a big business, particularly in the Northwestern United States," Swepston says.
Goodnight's was one of five foundation herds in the United States that preserved the species from extinction, Swepston.
Following Goodnight's death in 1929, the herd went through several owners and was reduced to about 60 head.
"The last owner was an insurance company," Swepston says. "They proposed in the mid-1930s to have the last great buffalo hunt in Texas. There was such a public outcry that the idea was dropped."
Cowboys were in the process of loading the animals into boxcars when the herd broke out and drifted back into Palo Duro Canyon and onto the JA Ranch.
"There they remained until 1996," Swepston says.
That's when the owners of the JA Ranch donated the herd to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"At that time, in order to determine just how significant this herd was, we sampled five animals by darting them," Swepston says. "We drew blood and took hair samples."
These were submitted to a researcher at the Texas A&M veterinary school who had worked with buffalo genetics. He found through mydacondrial DNA work that two of the animals still contained traces of cattle left over from Goodnight's experiments. Three of the animals were considered pure buffalo, and they were found to be unique.
"We now know that this herd is like no other in the world," Swepston continues. "It's the last truly pure wild buffalo herd of the great southern herd."
In 1997, they began to prepare for capture of the entire herd.
"The first effort was in the summer of 1997," Swepson says. "We had to build a temporary holding facility on the JA. At the same time, we began the construction of the breeding facility and working facility at Caprock Canyons State Park."
In September 1997, a seasonal worker was hired to get the animals accustomed to a feed truck so they could be brought in close for darting, preferably about 30 to 50 yards.
Catching operations began in November 1997, and continued to February 1998.
"These animals roamed over about a 70,000 acre range normally," Swepston says. "Sometimes just locating them was the biggest job. Every day was different. Some days they would come right up to the truck. Some days they would run when they saw it."
They used a highly restricted drug designed for sedating large animals.
"The average time from the time an animal was darted was three to five minutes," Swepston says. "The biggest bull we had was about 1800 pounds. He went down in three minutes."
Once the animal was down, Swepston says, they had to work quickly. Just the weight of the animals could have caused suffocation.
The animals were dragged onto specially built sleds that in turn were dragged into cages or crates. Once the animals were in the crates, they were righted and a reversal drug injected. The reversal drug usually took about 10 to 15 minutes to work.
"Once they were up, the crates were moved onto special trailers with a winch," Swepston says.
The animals were taken back to holding facilities and tested for bangs and TB before they could be removed from the ranch.
It took three days to get the results back on the tests. During this time, more tests were performed, blood and hair samples taken and they were vaccinated for a variety of livestock diseases.
"Every animal proved to be negative for bangs and TB," Swepston says.
The buffalo were then transferred to the breeding facility at Caprock Canyons.
The fences around the 153-acre pastures where the buffalo are held are 10 feet high and made with oilfield cable.
"It's been nicknamed Little Jurassic Park," Swepston quips.
They have 33 head 11 bulls and 22 cows.
"We've had four calves born since we moved them to the facilities," Swepston says. "We had one fatality in the calf crop."
The fatality was an exceptionally large calf, weighing 74 pounds. The normal size for a buffalo at birth is between 35 and 50 pounds.
"We believe he was in the birth canal too long and was stillborn," Swepston offers.
A Texas A&M researcher and graduate student are doing genetic mapping of every animal in the herd to determine how closely related they are.
"What makes this herd unique is that while Goodnight shipped a lot of animals out, it appears that he never brought an animal in," Swepston explains. "Their DNA is not found in any other buffalo herd in the world. We hope, using this genetic map, to bring them through the genetic bottleneck. The early results are encouraging. The genetics were not as narrow as we'd first thought, but they could be better. Through selective breeding, we hope to expand this genetic base."
They are also going to compare the genetics with bone samples from archeological sites to see how closely today's herd is related to prehistoric buffalo.
"We would like to use offspring from this herd to develop a free-roaming herd on a large piece of land," Swepston says. "That's down the road. Right now, our breeding program is our main concern.
Out of 40 animals that were captured, six showed traces of cattle mydacondrial DNA from Goodnight's cattle-buffalo breeding program.
"The bulls we can use in the breeding program," Swepston says. "The cattle gene is transferred through the female side. You can use a bull that shows cattle in him, breed to a pure cow, and it won't be passed on. That helps with the genetics."
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