“Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam, where the Deer and the Antelope play; Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day.”
While it was first published in a Kansas newspaper in 1876, Dr. Brewster Higley’s “My Western Home,” also known as “Home on the Range,” has been an evocative staple across the rolling hills and storied high plains of Texas.
Icon and subject of everything from Abilene’s Frontier Texas to the mascot of West Texas A&M University, the American buffalo is a cornerstone figure in the history and culture of the Southwest and stands as the national mammal of the U.S.
However, despite their ubiquity in iconography, many Texans have never seen a living buffalo. What happened to them, and where do they roam today?
A look back at the American buffalo
Occupying sprawling grasslands and green hills, environmental historians have reported that as many as 60 million buffalo once roamed the Great Plains of North America. Known among the largest land mammals on the continent, buffalo (or bison), the National Park Service contends that predecessors of the modern herbivore found their way to North America between 130,000 to 300,000 years ago. Their travels across the continent and grazing and wallowing behaviors contributed to broad diversity in vegetation and soils that helped create habitats for many plants and animals.
As noted in other reporting from the Associated Press, buffalo were driven to the brink of extinction in the 1800s as hunters, US troops and tourists shot them by the thousands to supply a commercial market that used parts of the animal in machinery, fertilizer, and clothing.
Further, according to the NPS, buffalo were slaughtered by the US military in a directive meant to control and otherwise decimate indigenous communities, for whom the buffalo has been central to lifestyle and spiritual traditions and diets for thousands of years.
Only a few hundred buffalo remained by 1889, in the wake of what historians have phrased as the annihilation of the creature in “the Great Slaughter.” The NPS noted that private citizens were central to the first major push by the US to conserve the buffalo when they began to independently capture and shelter herds.
Among the most notable were Texan ranchers Mary Ann and Charles Goodnight of the JA Ranch and Goodnight Ranch. Recorded by historians, newspapers, and the man himself, Charles Goodnight began his herd in 1879.
“In the spring of 1879- to be exact, May 15th- at my wife’s request, started out to look for some young buffalo,” recalled Goodnight around 1903, “At last I found a few younger ones in Palo Duro canyon, and ‘roped’ them from horseback. The month following W.W. Dyer, my wife’s brother, caught two young females. From this start we have now a herd of forty-five purebred buffaloes… The buffalo breeds slowly in captivity. It seems incomprehensible that they should have grown into such enormous herds as there were when I came to this country, and which, in fact, covered all the western plains.”
The Goodnight Herd stands as one of the earliest herds of domesticated buffalo and, now, one of the oldest in existence. Those buffalo have contributed to populations in Texas, Nevada, New Hampshire, Kansas, Montana, New Mexico, and New York, as well as in other countries such as Canada and Germany.
Meanwhile, outside the sphere of private business, the US Congress passed the Lacey Act in 1894, which protected existing buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Further, the American Bison Society was initially active in the early 1900s and, according to NPS, compelled Congress to establish a number of public buffalo herds that helped to save the animal from total extinction.
Where the buffalo roam today
As noted by the NPS, about 360,000 plains buffalo are currently owned as domestic livestock, while around 31,000 buffalo are stewarded in publicly-owned herds in the US and Canada. There are also a number of environmentally-focused organizations and Native American tribes that have been heavily involved in the stewardship and recovery of the buffalo.
As previously reported by the Associated Press, as many as 82 tribes now have more than 20,000 bison in 65 herds. There are associations such as the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative, an offshoot of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, as well as the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project that have been focused on herd restoration and management.
Between assorted government groups and nonprofits, these efforts have resulted in a number of buffalo herds that people in Texas can visit today. Some groups, such as the TTBP, have hosted youth camps at organization ranches to present educational opportunities to youths in local communities. The Big Bend Sentinel also reported that in 2022, a seemingly random instance of a buffalo was seen by a visitor at Big Bend National Park. They have also occasionally been found in zoos across the Lone Star State.
Year-round, as detailed by the TPWD, visitors can view the Goodnight Herd – now the Texas State Bison Herd, the last remaining examples of the Southern Plains buffalo – at Caprock Canyons State Park in Quitaque, about halfway between Amarillo and Lubbock. There are also buffalo and longhorns known to make their homes in San Angelo State Park.
As Native American communities, environmentalists, non-profits, government organizations, and private citizens continue to work to preserve and revitalize one of the main figureheads of the American West, the US also celebrates National Bison Day on the first Saturday of November in honor of the buffalo’s distinction as the national mammal.
Altogether, whether it be to recognize National Bison Day on the first Saturday of November, to mark the 100th-year celebration of Texas state parks, or simply to appreciate an icon of culture, history, and conservation – it may be among the best possible Texas trips to take to visit the buffalo in the High Plains or the Concho Valley.