Lords of the Prarie

Long known as "lords of the prairie," Bison are formidable beasts and the heaviest land animals in North America. These symbolic animals of the Great Plains are often mistakenly called buffaloes because of their similarity to the African water buffalo and Asian buffalo. Bison stand five to six and a half feet tall at the shoulder, and can tip the scales at over a ton. Despite their massive size, bison are quick on their feet. When the need arises, they can run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. They sport curved, sharp horns that may grow to be two feet long. European settlers traveling across America’s Great Plains in the early 1800s were accustomed to the gentle prairie wind echoing across the vast sea of grass. Sometimes, however, the rumbling of thunder could be heard in the distance, though no storm clouds could be seen, and the ground would begin to tremble. Suddenly, the wide-eyed newcomers would be surrounded by a thundering herd of massive animals that stretched further than the eye could see. American Bison were quite a majestic welcoming committee and made it clear that the settlers had, in fact, arrived in the buffalo nation. Tens of thousands of American Bison called the Great Plains of North America home. These large grazers feed on plains grasses, herbs, shrubs, and twigs. Similar to cattle, they regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before final digestion. Female bison are called "cows," and adult males are called "bulls." Bison generally live in small, separate bands and come together in very large herds during the summer mating season. Males battle for mating primacy, but such contests rarely turn dangerous. Females give birth to one calf after a nine-month pregnancy. Luther Standing Bear, a member of the Lakota tribe, said, "The Indian was frugal in the midst of plenty. When the buffalo roamed the plains in multitudes, he slaughtered only what he could eat and these he used to the hair and bones." Indeed, for thousands of years the huge bison herds were able to accommodate the loss of the relatively few animals taken by Native Americans. However, things began to change. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers introduced horses to the region. By the 1800s, Native Americans had learned to use the speedy steeds to chase bison, dramatically expanding their hunting range and effectiveness. Next, guns made their way into the hands of buffalo hunters, making them increasingly deadly hunters. But it was that arrival of vast waves of white settlers in the 1800s and their conflict with the Native American residents of the prairies — that spelled the end for the buffalo. Among the earliest waves of settlers were trappers and traders, people who made their living selling meat and hides. By the 1870s, they were shipping hundreds of thousands of buffalo hides eastward each year: The commercial killers, however, weren’t the only ones shooting bison. Train companies offered tourists the chance to shoot buffalo from the windows of their coaches, pausing only when they ran out of ammunition or the gun’s barrel became too hot. There were even buffalo killing contests. In one, a Kansas man set a record by killing 120 bison in just 40 minutes. "Buffalo" Bill Cody, hired to slaughter the animals, killed more than 4,000 buffalo in just two years. Even some U.S. government officials promoted the destruction of the bison herds as a way to defeat their Native American enemies, who were resisting the takeover of their lands by white settlers. One Congressman, James Throckmorton of Texas, believed that "it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence." Soon, military commanders were ordering their troops to kill buffalo not for food, but to deny Native Americans their own source of food. One general believed that buffalo hunters "did more to defeat the Indian nations in a few years than soldiers did in 50." By 1880, the slaughter was almost over. Where millions of buffalo once roamed, only a few thousand animals remained. Soon, their numbers dwindled, with the largest wild herd just a few hundred animals — sheltered in the isolated valleys of the newly created Yellowstone National Park. It is from this tattered remnant that people are today trying to rebuild the once mighty buffalo nation. Preserves and ranches have been built and maintained by many who believe Commonly known as the "father of the Texas Panhandle," Charles Goodnight, was a cattle rancher in the American West during the mid19th to early 20th centuries, and is perhaps the most well-known rancher in Texas. Goodnight was born in 1836 in Macoupin County, Illinois, but moved to Texas at 10 years of age with his mother and stepfather. Ten years later, he entered the cattle business on the northwest Texas frontier, where he also served with the local militia in their long-running battle against Comanche raiders. Goodnight joined the Texas Rangers in 1857 and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. In 1876, Goodnight began his operations in Texas, this time at a ranch near Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. The next year, he formed a partnership with an Irish investor, John G. Adair, and their ranch soon covered more than 1 million acres, with a herd of one hundred thousand head. A pioneer in cattle breeding, Goodnight crossed the tough but scrawny Texas longhorns with the more traditional Herefords to produce a longhorn breed that was both independent and commercially lucrative. He also crossbred the bison with domestic cattle, which he called "cattalo." In addition to raising cattle in 1876, the Goodnights preserved a herd of native plains bison that year, which is said to survive to this day in Caprock Canyons State Park. The herd in Caprock Canyons was actually donated by JA Ranch, and there is no documentation demonstrating that this was the same herd preserved by the Goodnights. In any case, bison of this herd were introduced into the Yellowstone National Park in 1902 and into the larger zoos and ranches throughout the nation. Today, bison numbers have rebounded somewhat, and about 200,000 bison live on preserves and ranches where they are raised for their meat.

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13 Dec 2015


By Erin Baxter