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Texas Town Revived by Bison Herd


A bison cutout of metal in Quitaque, Texas | Image by CNN

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In the tiny remote city of Quitaque, Texas, a small herd of bison arrived, saving it from becoming a ghost town.

With its inhabitants dwindling from 945 to about 340 over the past century, the extinction of this Texas ranching town seemed almost certain about a decade ago.

Amid the empty storefronts and crumbling infrastructure of Quitaque, a lone traffic light stands guard over the silent streets, bearing witness to a few truck drivers who pass through on the daily, transferring cattle to the surrounding ranch lands across the Texas panhandle.

Albert Castillo, one of the few remaining residents, spoke about the town’s “hey-day” with its five gas stations and four grocery stores. Now the manager of the last grocery store in Quitaque. He commented on the town’s past difficulties, saying, “At one time I thought it would be a ghost town … People were struggling back then, and it was kinda hard.”

Despaired in the face of looming abandonment, an increasingly common fate of small towns in rural America, a fellow icon of the West brought new hope to Quitaque’s residents.

Quitaque — a name derived from “end of the trail” in one of the local native languages — is now the gateway city to a park where hundreds of bison now roam free.

Located about 100 miles southeast of Amarillo, a wildlife conservation effort has helped revitalize this rare and treasured bison herd, extending a lifeline to the small town.

Before being almost decimated by hunters in what is known as the “Great Slaughter” in the 1870s, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates that about 30 to 60 million bison once roamed the southern plains.

In 1878, a woman named Mary Ann Goodnight, the wife of a rancher insisted that her husband take in a few orphaned calves to preserve the once bountiful species. Then the herd grew exponentially, and the Goodnights supplied bison to Yellowstone National Park and other zoos across the continental U.S.

Upon the deaths of the Goodnights and the comings and goings of new ranch owners, the herd count dropped to about 50 to 80 bison. They wandered around the Palo Duro Canyon undisturbed for decades.

In the late 1990s, after it was discovered that the herd was one of the last of the southern plains bison, and upon the urging of Quitaque residents, the current ranch owners agreed to donate the animals to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division.

The small herd was transported to the Caprock Canyons State Park to roam a 300-acre section, which could only be viewed from a distance. In 2011, the bison were allowed to move about freely around 700 acres, and today the herd can be found across much of the 15,000-acre park.

Today, the herd count rests at about 350 bison that graze the town parks and fields. With plans by locals to partner with conservationists and local Native American tribes, the hope is to grow the herd’s size to 2,000 to protect it from being wiped out by disease or natural disasters.

In 2015, Governor Greg Abbott declared the small city of Quitaque as the Bison Capital of Texas. It is now where the annual “BisonFest” is hosted every year to raise money for the herd at Caprock Canyons.

Quitaque has now been revitalized, as Guy Young, a longtime resident and the president of the First National Bank, told reporters. In about a decade, the downtown area went from a deserted space to a quaint one, with an antique store, a coffee shop, a bed and breakfast, and a gift shop.

“That doesn’t sound like very much, but when you’re going from zero to four — or one to four — just small steps like that are pretty big for us,” he said.

The resilient people of the town of Quitaque were saved by the resilient species — two surviving icons of the old West, restoring the community and aiding one another in efforts to keep one another alive and well.

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