AMARILLO - Once bison thundered across the plains by the thousands, the clouds of dust from their numbers nearly blotting out the sun. But today, wildlife biologists are fighting to save the last remnants of the Great Southern Plains bison from history's boneyard.
In 1997, the historic JA Ranch donated dozens of bison to Caprock Canyons State Park, and they were moved to their new home range, 320 acres of mesquite-covered grasslands that overlook Briscoe County's reddish-orange canyons. In the 1870s, famed cattleman Charles Goodnight captured five or six calves, the ancestors of today's herd.
Two years ago, media mogul Ted Turner donated three bulls from his New Mexico ranch to bolster genetic diversity in the Texas herd, the last remnants of the South Plains bison.
Danny Swepston, wildlife director for Texas Parks and Wildlife, said the herd's protectors hope to introduce Turner bull genetics into the herd, but they also want to retain genetics from the historic Goodnight herd bison. Blood and hair samples are taken from selected calves to see how the genetic mix is turning out.
"From those, we pretty much know who the mother is and whether it's a Turner bull or a Goodnight bull. This is simply an experiment with the Turner bulls to see if we can increase the genetic diversity without severely altering the DNA of this herd," he said. "Once we get some animals with the Turner DNA in them, then we'll turn around and breed those back to Goodnight animals."
Early December marked an annual checkup of sorts for the herd, which now numbers about 60. This year 10 new calves joined the herd, and wildlife officials come from across the region to protect the bison from diseases and check for injuries.
The state, Swepston said, needs to consider establishing another herd - a hedge of sorts against disasters such as fire, lightning or even a tornado that could wipe out the historic animals. The herd's isolated home, so far, has kept it protected.
"We've had two tornadoes come within a quarter-mile of this facility since it was established in '97. That's a concern. We could lose all 10 years of work here and a unique group of animals in one night," he said.