The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 71, July 1967 - April, 1968

Range Deterioration in West Texas

THADIS W. Box*
WEST TEXAS IS, AND HAS BEEN SINCE ITS SETTLEMENT, A FAMOUS
cow country. It is a relatively new country-less than one hun-
dred years ago the area was populated by buffalo and savages. In
twenty-one short years, the range changed from a virgin grassland to
a man-made desert. In 187g the first buffalo hunters arrived;' by 1894
domestic cattle were dying by the thousands on overgrazed ranges.'
The history of the ravaging of a vast grassland in so short a time is
almost unbelievable. An entire biological community that had taken
millennia to evolve was destroyed in less than a quarter of one century.
The western half of Texas is part of a mixed prairie climax that
stretches from Texas to the southern Canadian Provinces. The mix-
ture of palatable and nutritious grasses evolved under the migratory
grazing of the buffalo, constant and recurring fires, and periodic
drought. Although the plants fluctuated in density due to changing
climatic conditions, they maintained themselves in sufficient popula-
tions to provide the basis for the western livestock industry.'
In fact, when cattlemen first came to West Texas they estimated
that large portions of the prairie would carry a cow on two to five
acres.' Indeed, many of the early ranchers in West Texas continuously
stocked ranges in excess of fifty head per section, that is, one animal
to fifteen acres." Today these same areas will not support a third the
number originally stocked. In the brief span that the white man has
used West Texas ranges-less than a century-the apparent carrying
capacity has dropped by two-thirds. There is good evidence that most
of this decline in carrying capacity took place in the first thirty years
*Mr. Box is professor of range management at Texas Technological College.
1J. Wright Mooar, "The First Buffalo Hunting in the Texas Panhandle," West Texas
Historical Association Yearbook, VI (198o), 109.
"Lan Franks [pseud. for Don Hampton Biggers], History That Will Never Be Repeated:
A Brief Review of the Cattle Business and the Periods of Prosperity and Eras of Disaster
and Depression Through Which It Passed Since x876 (Ennis, Texas, n.d.), 25.
'John Ernest Weaver and Frederic E. Clements, Plant Ecology (New York, 1938), 523-
'Cornelius L. Shear, Field Work of the Division of Agrostology, in United States De-
partment of Agriculture, Division of Agrostology, Bulletin No. 25 (Washington, 1901o), 42.
"John A. Rickard, "The Cattle Ranch Industry of the Texas South Plains" (unpublished
M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1927), 48.

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 71, July 1967 - April, 1968. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117145/. Accessed July 25, 2014.