Bison sightings in Big Bend National Park prompt speculation about their origins 

A still from a short video of a bison running off the road in Big Bend National Park. This bull is one of the bison spotted in the park since mid-July; how many bison are in the park and where they came from is a mystery. Photo courtesy of Britney Martin.

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — On August 7, Britney Martin was headed from Rio Grande Village to visit her uncle in Marfa. As she neared the park’s northern entrance station, she saw him: a bison bull with a patchy summertime coat, standing around 6 feet tall. She stopped the car to get a picture, but the move was startling — instead of a serene nature shot, she caught a dramatic short video of the bison charging her car. 

Martin was aware of rumors among park employees about bison spotted near the northeastern edge of the park — a few days before, a friend of a friend had seen one on her way to the Chisos Basin. Someone else claimed to see a pair out by Dog Canyon. As someone who has lived most of her life in Big Bend National Park, Martin knew better than to approach the animal on foot. “I didn’t get out; I wasn’t trying to die,” she said. 

The sightings of the bison — considered wiped out from West Texas since the 19th century — have prompted speculation among locals and park aficionados alike. “Most visitors — and park employees — don’t expect to see a bison in Big Bend National Park,” said Tom Vandenberg, the park’s chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services. “When first reported in mid-July, it was hard to believe, but photos don’t lie.”

In the past two weeks, Martin’s photographs have been liked and shared by around 2,000 people on social media. John Karges, a former conservation biologist for the Wildlife Conservancy, was quick to join in on the fun. From retirement in San Antonio, chiming in on Big Bend forums and Facebook pages is a way of connecting with his former home. “On social media, there’s a lot of misidentification and misrepresentation out there,” he said. 

Unlike the many misidentified elk and bighorn sheep Karges comes across on a daily basis, the bison bull encountered by Martin was unmistakable. Before the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, there were an estimated 30 million bison roaming North America in the so-called “bison belt” from the fringes of the Arctic to Northern Mexico, concentrated in the Great Plains. The story of how they disappeared is long and thorny. 

American bison (Bison bison) are distinct from what are commonly called buffaloes on other continents. There are two kinds of American bison: a wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) and Plains bison (Bison bison bison). The creature Martin saw on the highway was a male Bison bison bison, and in pretty good shape. “He could be past mating age, but he did look fairly healthy and agile,” Karges said. 

According to Karges, the bison of the historical Trans-Pecos region were migratory, just like the people who relied on them for survival. The typical southernmost range of the American bison was in the modern-day Texas Panhandle, but they were known to dip down into the Big Bend and northern Mexico as the local climate and ecology shifted. The fossil record of that, as Karges puts it, is “pretty meager.”

Still, there’s plenty of evidence bison were a presence in the diets and imaginations of the earliest Trans-Pecos residents. There are artistic representations of bison scattered throughout the region, most notably on the Devil’s River and in Big Bend National Park. Just outside Redford, a bison knife — used by Indigenous people to process hides — was found and donated to the Museum of the Big Bend.

Deep on a ranch in Val Verde County is the Bonfire Shelter, which has the distinction of being the earliest and southernmost “buffalo jump” site in North America. Around 12,000 years ago — long before the domestication of the horse — Indigenous people came up with a brilliant, time-saving idea: if they strategically startled a herd of bison near a cliff’s edge, there would be a buffet of remains waiting at the bottom of the canyon.

When the Spanish governor and shipwreck survivor Cabeza de Vaca visited what’s now south Presidio County in 1534, his crew encountered a number of natives living along the river — many of whom said that their neighbors and relatives were away hunting bison. Cabeza de Vaca did not yet have a word for these creatures: in the account of his travels known as La Relación, they’re merely referred to as “cows.”

The word cíbolo — as in Cibolo Creek and the Fortín de Cíbolo that would later become a luxury resort — means “bison” to many local Spanish speakers. Look up the word “bison” in a Spanish dictionary, however, and you’ll probably find an entry for the word bisonte. Historian Enrique Madrid of Redford explained that the exact origins of the name cíbolo are a mystery, but it’s probably an Indigenous word. 

Historically, there were many different clans of the Jumanos living in the area, but the Bison Clan frequently made camp around what’s now Shafter. “Their headquarters were along Cibolo Creek, near what’s called Elephant Rock,” Madrid explained. As a fellow Jumano — albeit from a different clan — Madrid is frustrated by what he feels is an erasure of the bison from local place names and narratives.

Madrid thinks “Elephant Rock” — the roadside pull off and photo-op named by the Texas Department of Transportation — is a misnomer. To Madrid, the formation only looks like an elephant if you’ve never seen a bison before. “They didn’t ask anybody — people just name things after what they recognize,” he said. “The only elephants who ever came through Shafter were with the circus.” 

The Bison Clan Jumanos were not the only Indigenous Big Bend residents who depended on bison: bands of the Apache and Comanche who passed through the area seasonally also hunted these giant game animals. As the frontier of white settlement crept further and further west in the age of Manifest Destiny, demand for bison products ballooned worldwide.

The United States Army also quickly realized they could combat public enemies one and two — the Apache and Comanche — by targeting the bison. By starving out the people who depended on them, the post-Civil War Union Army had a better chance of winning a war against the Indigenous forces that had foiled them at every turn. “One of General [Tecumseh] Sherman’s favorite techniques to conquer a tribe was to exterminate their food source,” Madrid explained.

Karges agreed that late 19th-century anti-Native policies were partly to blame for the bison’s disappearance — but long-term trends toward a changing climate were likely a factor as well. “It’s very, very plausible that bison come into the Trans-Pecos in either good conditions in the area or bad conditions on the Great Plains — or maybe both,” he explained. As conditions trended hotter, bison — which tend to migrate north in winter — may have found the Big Bend a less hospitable hideaway. 

That could also explain why the bison spotted this summer in Big Bend National Park strayed so far from wherever they originally came from. “Bison herds move pretty quickly,” Karges explained. “They have to wander to find forage. These bison in Big Bend right now are probably moving around because the range conditions are so bleak and because the drought has made water so rare.” 

But where did the bison in Martin’s photographs originally come from? Some folks on social media speculated that he came from Mexico — there’s a herd of bison in the Sierra del Carmen Nature Reserve about 50 miles from Boquillas. The park quickly ruled that theory out. 

Karges — and several others — thought he probably came from the Bruce Ranch, a series of large family holdings near Marathon. To Karges’ knowledge, those are the only untagged domestic bison in the area. He’d even had a close call with a Bruce Ranch bison — one night, driving from Sanderson to Marathon around sunset, he saw a bull running by the side of the road. 

This was before Karges owned a cell phone, so he drove all the way to Alpine to try to alert the sheriff. “I used to work with a [bison] herd for the Fort Worth Nature Center in a previous career,” he said. “I know how dangerous they are, especially at dark on a highway.” 

Barry Bruce, keeper of the Bruce Ranch bison herd, didn’t think the bison in the national park belonged to him. At the time Karges spotted the runaway bison on Highway 90, there were closer to 500 bison on Bruce land in Brewster County; now, there are around 20, making it easier to spot when the herd has thinned. “About 15 years ago we had a bunch get out,” he said. “There were some people south of Marathon who said they’d seen some buffalo down that way.”

The Bruce Ranch herd dates back to 1983. The original Bruce bison were refugees from a failed experiment in Southeast Texas, where a rancher bought them without realizing how unsuited the region’s rangeland was for bison nutrition. Bruce’s grandfather took them west, and the bison thrived in their ancestral vacation lands in the Trans-Pecos. For almost 40 years, the family has enjoyed raising them and selling them off to hunters and butchers.

Though raising bison is a family affair, Bruce took to them perhaps more than the rest of his relatives. He built his house on the side of a mountain, and the old Comanche Trail — a seasonal migration route the natives followed toward Mexico — crosses his yard. “You could walk out on my front porch and put a chair down and watch bison roam down below — it was just like going back 200, 300 years,” he said. 

There were advantages beyond aesthetics. The bison aren’t as hard on the local terrain as cows or — God forbid sheep and goats. “All a cow does is eat grass, and it’ll eat grass until that area is completely barren,” Bruce explained. While cows are picky about what they’ll eat, bison will eat shrubs and cactus other range animals can’t digest. “The bison walk along and eat everything, so it gives the grass time to regrow.” 

A trend toward healthier and ethically-sourced meat in recent years hasn’t hurt. Even in the modern-day bison market, all parts of the animal can be used for something. “Bison put out about 10-15% more meat than a cow, and all the fat nutrients are in the meat, so they can’t be carved off,” he explained. “Bison is about the second most nutritious meat you can get, behind ostrich. And I’m not eating no damn ostrich.” 

The major difference between raising cattle and raising bison is the bison’s size and strength. Because they’re wanderers by nature, only massive, Big Bend-sized ranches can keep them happy — and even then, fences are just a suggestion. “Bison don’t run around things, they run through,” Bruce said. “You gotta have one hell of a fence.”

For now, the origin of the bison Britney Martin saw near Persimmon Gap is a mystery. The park’s official investigation is ongoing. “Over the last month, park managers have been making extensive efforts to contact local landowners to determine their origin,” VandenBerg explained. “These efforts continue.”

Even if the owners are contacted, relocation of the bison could be logistically impossible. Unlike the international cattle estray captured within the park and shipped off to Presidio, bison are considered wild animals — the protocol for what happens to them after they’re spotted is much different. “Lawfully-wise, a buffalo is considered a wild animal,” Bruce explained. “If one gets off a ranch and gets hit on the highway, it’s just like hitting a deer.”

Could the bison that Britney Martin startled on the road to Persimmon Gap live out the rest of his days in Big Bend National Park? Karges thinks so, but only if conditions are right. “There’s all kinds of things that could happen to him,” Karges said. “He could find a waterhole and forage and stay there lonely for the rest of his life. He could move until he finds resources or until he finds his herd again.” 

Madrid didn’t understand why the park didn’t try a reintroduction program. He’s been a supporter of the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project, a Lipan Apache-led organization to reintroduce Indigenous people to their ancestral food source. “Wherever cattle range, there could be bison,” he said.

Because the animal was historically so transient, the park is hesitant to declare the species “native” to the area. “In order to answer this question definitively, the NPS would need an academic study,” VandenBerg explained. “If such a study determined that bison were indeed native, any decision to reintroduce them would require an assessment of the likely ability of a reintroduced population to be self-sustaining considering habitat and climate change.”

Regardless of however the National Park Service decides to proceed, the reappearance of the bison had a deeper, spiritual meaning to Madrid. “Every clan has a totem — the totem is an ancestor of your clan. That’s part of our religion,” he explained. “This bison, he’s the future of the Big Bend.”