Saving the Longhorns

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If you are someone who thought the Texas longhorn was as dead as the passenger pigeon, here is a bit of news. At one time closer to extinction than the buffalo ever was, this historic breed is again doing quite well, thanks to a few dedicated cattlemen who recognized the debt owed by the Southwest to the millions of longhorn beeves that plodded up the Chisholm and Western trails to Kansas and Nebraska railheads in the two decades following the Civil War and brought a large measure of prosperity to the impoverished Lone Star State.

A herd numbering about three hundred of these rangy brutes, whose ancestors were tough enough to walk the thousand miles between the lower Rio Grande and the world’s greatest cattle market, Dodge City, and live on the country while doing it, now enjoy comparative luxury on their own exclusive twenty-four-thousand-acre pasture in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge near Cache, Oklahoma. Almost half of these are bulls or steers, the members of the family that produce those famed head ornaments measuring five feet or more from tip to tip, so coveted as wall decorations by proprietors of saloons and restaurants throughout the West. A second, slightly smaller herd, started with progeny of the first, is on exhibition at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine, Nebraska.

The size of these two groups of longhorns maintained by the federal government is held down to the capacity of the available pasturage. About once a year, usually in the autumn, the excess is auctioned off. Buyers are chiefly southwestern cattlemen who like the idea of owning a few specimens of the hardy breed on which their industry was founded more than a century ago. Other bidders are seriously interested in crossbreeding the older strain with more modern beef producers in order to take advantage of the longhorn’s best characteristics. Altogether there are probably some three thousand privately owned longhorns throughout the country, most of them in the Southwest. Another hundred or so are scattered through six Texas state parks, a fitting living memorial to an exciting era long gone.

Much of the credit for saving the longhorns goes to Will Croft Barnes (1858–1936), rancher, conservationist; author, and soldier. Born in San Francisco and raised in the Midwest, Barnes served a hitch in the Signal Corps at Fort Apache during the early 1880’s, when Geronimo had Arizona Territory turned upside down. When his enlistment ended, he became a successful cattle raiser in northeastern Arizona. In 1907 his friend GifFord Pinchot talked him into leaving the Southwest and taking a job with the infant United States Forest Service, where his principal chore was selling conservation to cattlemen.

For many years Barnes had realized that the famed longhorn was faced with extinction. The historic breed, once described as having “too much legs, horns, and speed,” had been replaced long before by stodgy, unromantic animals that provided better beef and more of it. Nobody gave a hoot about the longhorn any more—that is, virtually nobody but Barnes. He decided that if the federal government could spend large sums on preserving the buffalo, the longhorn richly deserved the modest three-thousand-dollar appropriation he was requesting for financing the purchase of a small breeding herd. In 1927, with the aid of Texas-born Senator John B. Kendrick of Wyoming, he finally wangled the money from Congress.

But in 1927 there was no certainty that even a handful of longhorns with pure bloodlines still existed. Most of those running wild in the thickets of Texas had been tainted by the Brahman strain. However, at the age of sixty-nine Barnes embarked with another Forest Service employee, John H. Hatton, on an expedition that was to crisscross Texas and even go into Mexico, following up rumors and leads on alleged good specimens. Writing of his adventures in the October 15, 1927, issue of The Saturday Evening Post, Barnes described some of the hardships the two of them endured. He modestly cast his narrative in the third person.

In their search for genuine specimens the men traveled almost 5,000 miles over the grassy plains and through the mesquite thickets of southern Texas. They searched through the dry resacas along the Rio Grande and looked through miles of cottonwood basques for what they sought. They rode miles through dense forests of mesquite or thickets of prickly pear, cat’s-claw and huisache, where every limb was decorated with fishhook thorns or needle-like spines of cactus. … They looked through thousands and thousands of cattle in pastures, in round-ups, stockyards, and open fields often 20,000 to 30,000 acres in extent. From them all they selected the twenty-three animals they deemed worthy of being classed as true types of the historic old Longhorn cattle.

Ten cows and a bull were rounded up from the thickets of southwestern Texas. Ten more cows and two bulls were collected in the coastal area between Corpus Christi and Beaumont. After a merry time dipping these wild cattle to eradicate ticks, the consignment was shipped to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Three steers also went along for exhibition purposes.