Bison or Buffalo: What’s That Wooly Animal at Caprock Canyons State Park?

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Tony Maples Photography


Caprock Canyons State Park is known for several things. Among the attractions that draw visitors every year are the sweeping vistas, miles of hiking trails and the big, wooly animals roaming on the plains. The question is though, what IS that animal…is it a buffalo or a bison?

Bison or Buffalo?

Caprock Canyons

Photo: Facebook/Caprock.Canyons

The American bison (Bison bison) lives only in North America, while the two main buffalo species reside in Africa and Asia. A small population of bison relatives called the European bison (Bison bonasus) lives in isolated parts of Poland.

According to the website, Live Science, early American settlers called bison “bufello” due to the similar appearance between the two animals, and the name “buffalo” stuck for the American variety. But, it’s wrong.

Like buffalo, bison belong to the Bovidae family, which includes more than 100 species of hoofed mammals, called ungulates – buffalo, bison, antelopes, gazelles, cattle, sheep, and goats. Two main buffalo species exist: African cape buffalo and Asian water buffalo. The American bison sports a large shoulder hump and a massive head, which gives this symbol of the West its burly appearance.

African Buffalo

african buffalo

Photo: Flickr/Decaseconds

African cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) graze along the savannahs and grasslands of southern and eastern Africa. As if wearing a colonial-wig, the male is equipped with a head shield from which its horns sprout…and they live far, far away from Caprock Canyons State Park. 

Bison Are Here, Thanks To Charles Goodnight


Photo: Facebook/Caprock.Canyons

Once threatened to the brink of extinction, bison are doing quite well today. Thanks to private-government partnerships, herds can now be seen in many states and number in the tens of thousands.

Legendary rancher Charles Goodnight started the remnants of the herd on his JA Ranch in the Texas Panhandle in 1878, in attempts to save the animals that had meant so much to him. It was actually his wife that influenced the cattle and business tycoon to preserve them before they disappeared, so that future generations might be able to see and appreciate these special creatures.

Somehow, against the odds, a herd of genetic-related Southern bison has managed to survive the decades since, and now, we all benefit from the Goodnights’ vision. When the bison were initially donated to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and moved to Caprock Canyons State Park in 1997, it was discovered that their DNA was different, and feature genetics that are not shared by any other bison in North America. In fact, the Official Texas State Bison Herd at Caprock represents the last remaining examples of the Southern Plains variety.