The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bison, Symbol of the American West
by Ro Wauer


The recent Victoria Advocate article about the number of ranchers raising bison in Texas suggested another topic for a Nature Note, one that I have not previously addressed. Probably because wild bison are not something that can be expected along the Gulf Coast. However, historical bison populations did extend far south in Southwest Texas, into the Marathon Basin just north of Big Bend National Park, and also along the Rio Grande at least eastward to Del Rio. In fact, there is an amazing archeological site near Langtry where native Indians once herded bison over a cliff to kill as many as possible for food, clothing, and other uses.

The Langtry site, named Bonfire Shelter and excavated by University of Texas archeologists in 1963 and 1964, produced thousands of bison and other mammal remains, including some species now extinct. Native horses, camels, mammoth, and antelope were all included, although the vast majority of the remains were bison. Some dated as far back as 11,700 years ago (9700 BC), evidence that even early man utilized native bison. The site name was derived from the abundance of burned carcasses. The decaying mass built up heat and gasses until it spontaneously combusted.

Bison were pretty well extinct before 1900, primarily because the government paid hunters to kill what was a vital link to the survival of Native Americans. The greatest slaughters took place in the 1870s; more than 1500 outfits killed in excess of 100,000 animals in the months of December and January. The last verified report of wild bison in Texas was from the Panhandle in 1889.

The American bison, incorrectly called buffalo by the majority of Americans, is a huge, cowlike mammal with a distinct hump in the shoulder region. A bull can be six feet tall and weigh up to a ton. The wild bison is a gregarious plains animal that lives in herds, although old bulls may prefer a more solitary existence, especially in spring and early summer. But during rut in July and August they become more tolerant of the herd and associate with the ladies. The older, stronger bulls drive off the younger males, and bison are well known for being promiscuous in their mating habits. Calves arrive in April, May or early June, usually one calf at a time but twins can occur occasionally. Sexual maturity is reached in the third year, meaning cows can be productive for up to 40 years. Bison life span is at least 45 years.

The plains bison are predominantly grazers, utilizing grasses and forbs. Because of their diet being so much like the non-native cattle, open range bison are considered as competitors. Unless they are given special protection, as is the case with the various ranchers with a soft spot for these native Americans, bison can no longer exist within our society. That is even though bison meat contains only one-fifth the fat grams as beef, half the calories, less cholesterol, and higher amounts of iron and vitamin B-1. From my personal experience, bison meat is equal to beef, taste-wise, but the current cost cannot help but keep most people from buying bison rather than beef.

But whether or not bison are protected and raised for food, they, more than any other native mammal, truly are the symbol of the American West. The efforts of the few government agencies providing bison protection - places like Yellowstone National Park and Caprock Canyon State Park - and the special interest of a few private citizens are to be commended.

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