Renegade Roads

Buffalo Tracks

Herding shaggy-haired Buffalo, er Bison, from Texas to Montana.

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In the Rockies of Western Montana, I have the most perfect view of a buffalo. It’s inspiring, humbling, beautiful, majestic.

Char-grilled, eight ounces of tenderloin—cooked rare (chef Chris Kimmel will butcher guests who ask for it cooked any other way)—accented with onion straws, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus spears. The only thing missing here at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky is a Wild Huckleberry Martini, and what luck. Here comes my waitress.

All right, all right. I’m supposed to be herding live buffalo—American bison, to be species correct—but after admiring those shaggies in seven states, I deserve a great meal.

Besides, I have already enjoyed excellent views of living buffalo, the American icon that Benjamin Franklin called a courageous animal that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

Okay, Franklin wrote those words about a turkey, not a buffalo. But who’d want to go on a Western turkey tour?

When you think about American buffalo, it’s amazing. They were key—for food, supplies and spirituality—to Indian tribes such as the Lakota, Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne. They were almost wiped out by white buffalo hunters.

It took a cattleman—actually, his wife—to help save them.

Big Things in Texas

In 1878, the great Southern herd, which once numbered in the tens of millions, was no more. Only a few animals had survived the slaughter for horns, meat, but mostly, hides. Cattleman Charles Goodnight’s wife, Molly, suggested he do something about that, so he started roping a few.

Ol’ Charlie and his wife were visionaries. It wasn’t until 1905 that William T. Hornaday helped organize the American Bison Society to save those shaggy-haired beasts.

Goodnight’s herd not only survived, it grew, and that proved important. He sent buffalo to zoos, to Yellowstone National Park and to other ranches. In 1997, when Goodnight’s buffalo were donated to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, tests revealed that the DNA was different than other North American bison. That means the 80 or so buffalo you  can see today at Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway near Quitaque represent the last remaining Southern Plains buffalo.

Last year, Caprock Canyons moved the buffalo from a 300-acre pasture to more than 700 acres of native grass prairie. It’s a great place for buffalo to roam.

In Old Oklahoma

As a Comanche warrior and leader, Quanah Parker did all he could to keep the buffalo thriving, so next stop: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Cache, Oklahoma. You remember Quanah—especially if you’ve read S.C. Gwynne’s book Empire of the Summer Moon. Quanah led the Indian assault on white hunters at Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle in 1874. He also helped keep the buffalo alive.

Quanah was the one who persuaded Theodore Roosevelt to establish the Wichita Mountains preserve in 1901. Six years later, 15 buffalo (six bulls and nine cows) were reintroduced here. They were Yankee buffalo—coming from the New York Zoological Park—but no Okie minded that. Quanah and others met the animals at the train station and hauled them to the Wichitas, where they multiplied like rabbits.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife officials estimate that more than 10,000 buffalo have been sold or donated to help keep the grasslands in good working order. A public auction is held the fourth Thursday of each October.

The Wichitas were sacred to the Comanche, and the presence of buffalo in the preserve today helps keep these tree-studded hills special.

Promoting Kansas

On the way to Garden City, make a detour to Dodge City. The historic town known for Wyatt Earp and Gunsmoke started off as a buffalo hunting center in the 1870s. The Boot Hill Museum offers an exhibit of...

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