Caprock Canyons State Park

Location and owner/manager: Briscoe County, Texas north of Quitaque. Texas Parks and Wildlife.

From the west at Interstate 27 exit 74: Go forty-six miles east on Highway 86 to FM 1065 in Quitaque. Turn left and go three miles north to the park entrance.

From the north at Interstate 40 exit 124: Go south on Highway 70 sixty miles to Highway 86 In Turkey and turn right. Go west on Highway 86 ten miles to FM 1065 in Quitaque and turn right. Go three miles north to the park entrance.

$$. Camping. Pets on leash

First a word about a word - Caprock Canyons State Park is north of the town and creek of Quitaque and those who speak of Quitaque as ‘Kwit-a-kyoo’ shall be subject to ‘Rid-i-kyool’. Quitaque has a preferred local pronunciation of ‘Kitty-Kway’ but is sometimes referred to as ‘Kit-uh-kwai’ or ‘Kit-uh-kway’.

Caprock Canyons – the plural is correct here as there is more than one canyon in the park - has both a small prairie restoration and a bison herd. Many other preserves in the west have bison herds these days but the herd at Caprock has a special historical and genetic significance. In 1878 the great southern herd of bison was in the final stage of being exterminated by hide hunters. Famed rancher Charles Goodnight – who in 1866 first domesticated bison only to see his efforts come to naught by an inattentive business partner - captured three bison calves in the Palo Duro Canyon vicinity. He recalled chasing on horseback a small bison herd and cutting off the calves in some typewritten notes that were later incorporated into a posthumous biography:

“… the first time I went out to get buffalo calves, I moved them up a little until three of the calves fell behind. I cut them off and they followed me home and into the corrals.” (Haley, J Evett. 1949 (New Edition). Charles Goodnight Cowman and Plainsman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. p438).

Eventually he collected seven which by 1890 became a herd of about two to three hundred. Over the next fifty years the herd flourished and was one of five used by the American Bison Society in successful efforts to restore the species elsewhere. In 1929 upon his death Charles Goodnight willed the herd to the state of Texas which over the next several decades practiced a management policy of benign neglect with respect to this gift. The herd naturally dispersed into the Palo Duro Canyon area to the northwest of Caprock Canyons State Park. In 1997 these animals – now the official state Texas bison herd - were rounded up and brought to Caprock.

Charles Goodnight believed the bison herd of the southern plains to be a smaller and lighter colored subspecies of bison. The bison at Caprock are the most genetically pure descendents of this great southern herd.

Goodnight made some observations of the collective behavior of this great mass of animals as follows: The southern bison herd ‘would probably average a hundred and twenty-five to a hundred and fifty miles long and twenty-five miles wide’. Northern and southern bison ‘while they are no doubt the same species, there is enough difference in the two for any judge of animals to observe it at once. I know the southern herd never went as far north as the Arkansas River. I also know that the northern herd came as far south as the Wichita Mountains, and then turned and drifted back.’ The southern bison migrated each spring with the greening of the grass – ‘..at the starting of grass they turned north, and never until grass did start’. In the fall the herd migrated northwest to southeast until they reached the timbers of the Colorado River. After the large herd was exterminated the smaller remnant herds ceased to migrate. (p437, Haley).

Goodnight believed bison to be the most intelligent and hardy members of the bovine family notwithstanding their propensity to leap off cliffs. He noted that compared to cattle bison have larger brains, are much longer-lived and are better adapted to the extremes in temperature and precipitation of the western Great Plains. They avoid eating locoweed. They have two more incisors which allows them to more readily consume the low lying plants of the shortgrass prairie. A more subtle point concerns their approach to avoiding flies. The flies Goodnight was referring to specialize in attacking hooves. Hooves in the two orders of mammals that have such often expose skin that is either bare or protected by only very short hair. Hooves are also awkwardly positioned for the occasional snap of a mouth or swoosh of a tail to be an effective defense against flies. Goodnight noted that his cattle often ran themselves to exhaustion when persecuted by flies while bison in contrast simply sit down with their hooves tucked under their bodies and continue to graze. When they arise they do so with their front feet first. (p442-444, Haley).

Caprock Canyons State Park has two distinct habitats. The flat plain above the geologically recent hard white caprock tends to be more grassy than the shrubby vegetation associated with the ancient soft red Permian shale that slopes down into the canyons. However there are small areas of grass throughout the park that are generally dominated by Little Bluestem or Side Oats Grama. The best mixed grass prairie remnant is the one by the park entrance – there are no trails through it however. Prescribed burning is occasionally done here. Besides bison this park has a herd of pronghorn that were introduced in the 1980s.