How Texas saved the buffalo

A donation from the most famous rancher in Texas brought buffalo back from the brink.

By W.F. StrongSeptember 9, 2015 8:00 am

This story was originally published Sept. 9, 2015, and updated Sept. 28, 2022.

If it weren’t for Texas, there would be no buffalo in Yellowstone National Park.

I know it’s a large claim, but one that is not without merit. I can back it up. To be fair now, Texas had considerable liability for driving the poor buffalo to near extinction in the first place.

But once the forces of sanity took over and people realized that the range just wouldn’t be as happy a home if the buffalo didn’t roam, Texas took a lead role in saving these magnificent creatures.

In the early 1900s, the U.S. Army estimated that there were just 23 buffalo left in Yellowstone. And they believed that that 23 might be all the buffalo that remained in the wild, wild West. Imagine, just 23 buffalo left in the wild when 100 years before there had been 60 million of them on the American plains. There were ten buffalo for every American. Very sad.

Despite efforts to protect the 27 left in Yellowstone, the poachers poached away. After all, one impressive buffalo head could fetch $2,000 to forever gaze across a bar in Chicago. That’s $20,000 in today’s dollars. So the profit was high and the risk miniscule. This was the reality that seemed to doom the buffalo.

So how did Texas lead the way to saving them? Yellowstone needed some good, pure Buffalo bulls to rebuild the meager herd. And it needed them fast. The problem was that most of the buffalo then in captivity were cattalo, a mixture of buffalo and cattle.

But in Texas, the famous Charles Goodnight – the most omnipresent figure in Texas history it seems – had his own herd of buffalo. Goodnight owned over a million acres of land in the Texas Panhandle. The herd had been assembled by his wife Mary Ann Goodnight who personally saw to it that the orphan buffalo found wandering the ranch were saved and protected.

The Goodnights saved them from the Comanche Indians, they saved them from the Buffalo Bills of the world, and they saved them from wild predators of all kinds. So Goodnight, at his own expense, sent three fine, pure bulls up to Yellowstone to help rebuild the herd.

It worked. Thanks to Goodnight, that herd numbered about 5,450 in summer 2021. True, the U.S. Congress did create the Yellowstone preserve and that helped. The U.S. Army did its part to help protect the Yellowstone herd from poachers in that enormous park, and that helped. But it was Goodnight providing the seminal gift, the breeding power, that truly saved them. And if you add to the count, the buffalo herd that Goodnight donated to Caprock State Park in Texas, you can say that Texas is largely responsible for bringing the buffalo back from the brink of absolute extinction.

And that’s no bull.

W.F Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And at Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell Ice Cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.