Historic Wildlife of Texas
In Numbers, Numberless
Article by Steve Nelle
Photos by Wyman Meinzer
Imagine what it must have been like to be among the early settlers as they traveled across Texas. What did they see?
Despite the hardships, our early Texas ancestors described a land of unbridled abundance. The wildlife they encountered were unbelievable in number, much different than their Old World homelands and much different than what we know today. Because of the abundance of good soil, water, timber, grazing and wildlife, the settlers stayed, raised families and built settlements.
In those days there were no game regulations, and the science of wildlife management was not yet born. Market hunting was legal and was considered a legitimate and beneficial use of wildlife. Who would have ever thought that this seemingly unlimited resource would ever become scarce?
The species described below, once more numerous than the stars of the sky, were no match for a growing civilization. We can never go back to this abundance, and we cannot blame our forefathers for what they did not know. But we can remember, marvel and perhaps learn some lessons from the past to apply now.
(Author’s note: While “bison” is the proper scientific designation for this species, “buffalo” is the more commonly accepted name for non-scientists and landowners. And, since historic accounts of the animal refer to the animal as “buffalo”, I’ve chosen to use that term in this article.)
Of all the species which typified historic wildlife abundance, the plains buffalo are the most well-known. In the early to mid-1800s, buffalo were abundant across the vast northern and central part of the state, but largely absent in East Texas, South Texas and the Trans-Pecos.
Buffalo numbers have been estimated from 30 to 75 million for North America. If 75 million seems exaggerated, consider that 3 million hides were shipped from a single location in one winter. Whatever their numbers, the herds were immense and have been described “as numerous as the locusts of Egypt;” “like a black cloud covering the prairie;” “in number so great that only the Divine Majesty is able to count them.”
Contrary to popular perception, buffalo were not migratory in the strict sense of the term. The huge herds wandered haphazardly, often long distances, but not in a predictable or recurring pattern. No doubt their movements were dictated by forage availability, wolves, water, weather, fire and hunting by humans.
The size of some individual herds was beyond comprehension. In 1862 Nathaniel Langford estimated the size of one particular herd. “We judged the herd to be five miles across and the herd was more than an hour in passing at a speed of 12 miles per hour. The whole space, five miles by 12 miles was a seemingly solid mass of buffalo.” By estimating the approximate density of animals, he came up with a staggering number; “I have no doubt that there were one million buffalo in that herd.”
An even larger herd was seen along the Santa Fe Trail in 1839. This herd was estimated as 30 miles wide by 45 miles long, or a “block of buffalo a little larger than the state of Rhode Island.”
Even herds one-tenth this size must have been a sight, sound and smell to behold. William Kennedy reported that when a large tightly packed herd crossed a river, they created a dam which impeded flow and backed up the water. “The roaring and rushing sounds of one of these vast herds crossing a river could be heard for many miles.” Perhaps nothing like it exists on the earth today including the plains of Africa.
Many ecologists agree that their manner of grazing in tightly packed herds, constantly on the move, was an important factor for sustaining the grasslands. Some modern-day grazing schemes seek to mimic to some degree the way that the buffalo grazed. The grazing and trampling of grass, chipping of the soil surface, the dung and urine left behind and the transport of seed in the hair coat, followed by a prolonged absence of grazing must have all worked together to keep the grassland healthy despite what may have temporarily looked like devastation: “the prairie looked as if it had been plowed.”
Early cattlemen did not appreciate nor understand the significance of buffalo grazing. When the buffalo were eliminated and cattle subsequently confined by barb wire, the benefits of grazing were reversed. Continuous grazing hurt the grasslands while intermittent intensive grazing with long periods of recovery helped maintain grassland health.
If buffalo were present in the millions, prairie dogs were present in the hundreds of millions and had an equally significant effect on the ecology of the plains. Black-tailed prairie dogs were once the most abundant mammal in Texas, inhabiting the northwestern half of Texas including the Panhandle, Rolling Plains, Edwards Plateau and Trans-Pecos. Vernon Bailey estimated a total of 800 million prairie dogs in Texas.
One continuous town was described by Captain Randolph Marcy in 1852, covering nearly 900,000 acres in present day Donley and Armstrong counties. By counting the number of prairie dogs per acre, he came up with an estimated population in excess of 40 million.
If that sounds unbelievable, another contiguous prairie dog tract was described by J. Frank Dobie. The area was about 250 miles by 100 miles stretching from San Angelo to Clarendon and was estimated to be home to 400 million prairie dogs.
To early ranchers, prairie dogs were considered a serious threat, since they ate grass and reduced forage for livestock. Real or imagined, the burrows were also considered a hazard to horses and cattle. For these reasons, prairie dogs were eradicated across most of their historic range and now only occupy only a fraction of their former home.
One of the most interesting features of prairie dog towns is the lack of woody vegetation. Prairie dogs nip any and all tree and shrub seedlings from their town to maintain open visibility for predator detection. Thus, no mesquite or other brush is allowed to grow in prairie dog towns.
Could it be that the eradication of prairie dogs over millions of acres is one of the main reasons for the increase of mesquite over the past 100 years? Many ecologists think so, and it points to the reality of side effects in nature. When we tinker with one part of the system, it affects the rest of the system.
Despite our long and gallant history of fighting mesquite with heavy machinery and herbicides, we are hardly making a dent in its abundance. In addition to their control of mesquite, prairie dogs work like giant earthworms, loosening, turning, fertilizing and aerating nearly six tons of soil per acre each year.
The passenger pigeon was once found across the eastern half of North America in unbelievable numbers. With their population estimated at 3 billion to 5 billion, they were the most abundant bird on the continent and perhaps the entire planet. They reached greatest abundance in the Great Lakes region and New England, but the eastern half of Texas had its share of birds.
These large doves were 15 to 16 inches long, weighing up to three-quarters of a pound. Their primary food was tree nuts and berries, especially acorns, but they also devoured grain crops. The passenger pigeon swallowed acorns whole and could eat nearly one-fourth pound per day, their crops expanding to the size of an orange.
Their consumption of acorns is one reason they were slaughtered in East Texas. Most rural families kept free-ranging hogs for sale or sustenance, and these hogs depended on acorns. The immense flocks of pigeons quickly decimated the acorn crop, leaving nothing for the hogs. The pigeons were killed in large number and eaten or sold to markets or restaurants. In 1881, birds taken at a roost near Bastrop were sold for 50 cents a dozen.
In about 1880, Max Krueger remembered the large flocks that came to the cedar brakes around San Saba to gorge on cedar berries. “For many weeks nothing could be heard but the report of guns,” as the nearby farmers feared the birds would also destroy their crops. The following spring, the farmers set fire to the cedar brakes to discourage the birds. “For weeks and months, the sky was black with clouds of smoke as men torched these woods so valuable for fence posts.”
Their roosts often contained millions of birds, and residents near Palestine remember that the “weight of the birds often broke even the stoutest branches leaving trees stripped of limbs and foliage as if a cyclone had passed.” Guano accumulated to a foot or more killing all ground level vegetation. Near Kountze “so many pigeons stopped to roost in the virgin pine timber that they broke the limbs off the trees and the trees died.” There wasn’t a living tree for 150 acres, and the area became known as Pigeon Roost Prairie.
In 1831, John James Audubon described a migration he encountered while traveling horseback. He noted a new flock passing him every eight seconds, “the air being literally filled with pigeons. The light of noon-day was obscured; the dung fell like melting flakes of snow.” After having ridden 55 miles he noted, “The pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers and continued for three days in succession.”
The notion that a species could be driven to extinction was unknown to the early settlers. The birds were easy to kill in large number on the wing or on the roost, and they were killed by the millions, yet their numbers seemed inexhaustible—until it was too late.
After witnessing a hunt in 1847, Henry Revoil predicted that “the pigeons…will disappear from this continent. I will wager that by the end of the century, we will find no more wild pigeons, except those in the museums of natural history.” The last confirmed wild passenger pigeon is thought to have been shot in 1901.
Texas was once home to large numbers of wolves including both the gray wolf and red wolf. The larger gray wolf lived in the western two-thirds of the state, while the smaller red wolf resided in the eastern half of Texas. The gray wolf was once the most widely distributed mammal in the world, occurring across most of the northern hemisphere.
After the Civil War wolf skins were of some value, and an industrious wolf hunter could earn several thousand dollars a year. Finding the wolf was easy; all one had to do was find the buffalo. The “wolfer” would kill a buffalo, make cuts in the carcass and pour strychnine into the cuts. A poisoned carcass could claim as many as 100 wolves and coyotes.
By 1878 the Texas buffalo herds were gone, and wolves were taking a toll on the growing livestock industry. Bounties of $10 to $50 were paid to reduce wolf numbers.
In 1920, the U. S. Biological Survey, predecessor to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that the "wolf situation will require intensive organized effort until the last animal is taken." According to official records, 34,099 wolves were killed by government trappers in Texas between 1915 and 1966. This includes gray and red wolves but does not include wolves killed by landowners, cowboys, private trappers or wolf hunters.
The last two gray wolves in Texas were killed in 1970, and by the late 1980s the Mexican wolf subspecies was believed to be extinct in the wild. In 1977, Roy McBride was hired by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to live-trap any Mexican grays he could find. McBride located five individuals in northern Mexico which formed the basis of the Mexican Gray Wolf Captive Breeding Program.
The red wolf was aggressively hunted and trapped across its entire historic range almost to the point of extinction. By the 1970s only a few red wolves still remained in existence and these were restricted to deep southeast Texas. They had begun to cross with coyotes which threatened the genetic purity of the species.
The last known 14 pure red wolves were captured and transferred to captive breeding programs. Their offspring were used to re-stock the red wolf in remote areas of North Carolina where their numbers initially grew to over a hundred but have since declined. There are still reports of red wolves in East Texas, but experts insist that these are all wolf-coyote crosses.
Obviously, the role of the gray wolf was important for regulating the population of buffalo and other large ungulates. Buffalo hunters spoke of a thousand wolves surrounding and harassing a herd, devouring any animal that became separated or fell behind.
Aldo Leopold enthusiastically encouraged and participated in the extermination of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico knowing that it would create better deer hunting. He later came to regret his intense persecution of wolves as he observed the resulting deer overpopulation and habitat ruination. It is another vivid reminder of the rippling effects of our management in ways we do not or cannot anticipate.
Texas was once home to three kinds of prairie-chickens. Greater Prairie-Chickens were once abundant across the eastern one third of Texas and extended northward into the Great Plains and Great Lakes region. In Texas, there were an estimated half-million birds in 1850, becoming scarce by 1900 and gone by the 1930s. In Nebraska and Kansas, Greater Prairie-Chickens still exist in stable and huntable numbers.
Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, a subspecies of the Greater Prairie-Chicken, was abundant along the Texas gulf coast from the Sabine to the Nueces and about 75 miles inland. Their population was estimated at 800,000 to one million in 1880. It is said that “periodic flights of prairie-hens occurred in such numbers that they would obscure the sun.”
By 1937 their numbers had dropped by 99 percent to about 8,700 birds and was splintered into isolated populations. Their decline continued until the few remaining wild birds were trapped and sent to captive breeding facilities where they are being raised for restocking. Restocked birds in the wild have not fared well and were hit hard by Hurricane Harvey.
The Lesser Prairie-Chicken once inhabited the Panhandle, Rolling Plains and western Edwards Plateau. In the 1800s, an estimated 2 million occurred in Texas. In some locations, they were said to be “more numerous than buffalo.” The population in Texas is now estimated to be less than 6,000, and a great deal of effort and money is being directed toward the recovery of the species on private lands.
Market hunting took a heavy toll on prairie-chickens in the early 1900s. The following account comes from an article in The Saturday Evening Post, January 20, 1906. “Day after day for three months they brought in their corn wagons filled with prairie-chickens. Most of them brought only $1.50 a dozen, but now it is difficult to get the birds for $15 to $18 a dozen.
The writer, Nat Wetzel then offered this sobering prediction: “Prairie-chickens will be one of the first of our game birds to suffer practical extinction. The reasons for this are plain: Prairie-chickens cannot stand civilization and as the wild prairies disappear, these birds are bound to go.”
The prairie-chicken somehow survived intense market hunting, but they cannot survive habitat loss. Conversion of grassland to cropland, overgrazing, brush encroachment, fragmentation, urbanization and energy development are all factors that have contributed to the demise of prairie-chickens.
These are some of the noteworthy species that were “numberless” when our great-great grandfathers settled this state. Now, these species are reduced to insignificance or gone forever. In 1860, Texas had 600,000 people who comprised less than 2 percent of the total U. S. population. Now, we have 28 million people who comprise over 8 percent of the U. S. population. When human habitation increases, wildlife habitat decreases.
Although different from the past, Texas still has a rich abundance and variety of wildlife, thanks to the conscientious management of private landowners and the work of conservation agencies and organizations. The future holds good news and bad.
On the positive side, we now have more knowledge and expertise about wildlife ecology and habitat management. We also have the growing stewardship ethics of thousands of landowners.
But we also have the pressures of an ever-growing population. If immigration continues at the same rate as recent years, Texas is expected to grow to 54 million by 2050. We are adding over 200,000 new residents each year, or the equivalent of the population of Amarillo. Not all new Texans will be content to live in the big cities and suburbs. Many will discover the joy of living in the country on what used to be Grandpa’s farm, only now split into many small tracts.
We know the challenges that lie ahead for Texas lands, waters, wildlife and quality of life. The Texas Wildlife Association has the vision, the guts and the leadership to be a part of the solution. Every one of us needs to roll up our sleeves and ask, “How can I help?” Thirty or 50 years from now, we don’t want them to look back on us and say, “I wonder why they didn’t do more to save what was special about Texas.”