Tick Fever, New Dimensions
Editor’s note: The following is Part IV of Sierra Holt’s paper, “Reinterpreting the 1882 Bison Population Collapse.”
The full text was presented at the 2017 Winter Grazing Seminar in Glasgow.
Texas tick fever is caused by a protozoan and spread by a tick native to southern Texas. The protozoa destroy blood cells. When the animal’s blood can no longer carry oxygen, it smothers. The few emaciated survivors are easy prey for a harsh winter or predators. Some survivors achieve limited immunity. They can carry ticks to infect healthy herds. If a herd loses contact with the disease for a time, it loses its immunity and is again subject to the high death rate. Tick fever’s causes were discovered in 1906, long after the bison were gone (Blood and Henderson, 1968). In 1882, the fact that passing Texas cattle meant “native cattle died in vast numbers” was still being attributed to crawling devils, no ancient Spanish curse, poison leaking from their feet, and/or noxiously bad breath (Nordyke, 1955, p. 49).
Tick fever grants new dimensions to an observation by Charles Goodnight. “[T]he summer of 1867 was very dry in the Texas Panhandle, and bison herds had gathered on the Little Colorado River in such numbers that ‘They had remained until the grass was gone, and had died from starvation by thousands and thousands. The dead buffaloes, which extended for a hundred miles or more, were so thick they resembled a pumpkin field.’ Goodnight also stated that although there was still good grass on the Rio Concho, 30 miles across a divide to the southwest, the buffalo had stayed on the Little Colorado.” (Hart, 2001, p. 85) Charles Goodnight had been driving herds of Texas cattle north since the spring of 1866 (Richardson, 2010). If they were carrying infected ticks, and if the bison on the Little Colorado had had no recent contact with southern bison or cattle and had lost any immunity they may once have had... then within three weeks of meeting Goodnight’s herd, they would indeed have died like pumpkins. They would not have been noticeably sick, just too anemic to walk 30 miles to fresh grass until they dropped dead.
Goodnight eventually settled in the Texas panhandle. His cattle lost contact with the fever-carrying tick and their immunity and died like pumpkins when herds of South Texas cattle passed through. His frustrated anguish is clear from a letter published in the Fort Griffin Echo November 18, 1881. “[Y]ourselves and I have always been good friends, but even friendship will not protect you in the drive through here... if you have ay feeling for me as a friend or acquaintance, you will not put me to any desperate actions... My cattle are now dying of the fever contracted from cattle driven from Fort Worth, therefore do not have any hope that you can convince me that your cattle will not give mine the fever... I simply say to you that you will never pass through here in good health.” (Nordyke, 1955, p. 80-81).
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