There are no buffaloes in America now, except Buffalo Bill. I can remember the time when I was a boy, when buffaloes were plentiful in America. You had only to step off the road to meet a buffalo.
—Mark Twain, Melbourne, Au, 1895
Buffalo may not be as plentiful as once they were, but you can still meet one if you care to.
Denver Parks & Recreation’s camera-ready Genesee Buffalo Herd has been providing easy introductions to the iconic animals for more than 100 years. But far more than simply a place to glimpse an authentic piece of romantic American past, the piney pasturage atop Mount Vernon Canyon was and is a small but efficient engine helping move the West toward a more plentiful future.
The buffalo’s tragic tale is as familiar as its montane profile. Once blanketing the continent in tens of millions, it was hunted so recklessly during the 19th century that by 1900 less than 1,000 captive survivors remained. In 1908, the Centennial State’s refugee herd totaled 18 specimens, all of them guests of the Mile High City’s fledgling City Park Zoo.
Thinking to increase the stature of its growing archipelago of Denver Mountain Parks, in 2014, the city moved the entire exhibit, hoof and horn, to its freshly minted Genesee Game Preserve and let nature take its course. Nature responded so enthusiastically that by 1938 the herd had outgrown its piece of the park, and its membership was split to form a second buffalo colony at Daniels Park in Sedalia.
Before you say it, yes, Genesee Park’s year-round residents are properly called American bison. If you want to stand on taxonomy, they’re actually plains bison, designated Bison bison bison, as opposed to Northern arboreal woods bison, or Bison bison athabascae. In any case, everybody already knows they’re really bison, so there’s no need to keep correcting everybody who uses the popular term buffalo, which is just about everybody.
The Genesee herd occupies 540 acres of Genesee Park’s 2,400, and at present numbers 23 cows and a single busy bull that are expected to furnish at least a dozen brand-new calves this year. Since buffalo need a lot of shoulder room, alternative arrangements will have to be made for many of them.
“Our herd is limited by available forage,” explains DPR’s mountain parks director Shannon Dennison. “In wet years we may have more forage, and in dry years less. We recently had to reduce the herd size due to drier summers in order to reduce damage to the grassland.”
In times past, Denver auctioned off its surplus stock among the roughly 3,000 private and/or commercial bison ranches and farms currently operating in the U.S. and Canada. From now on, though, it’ll be giving them away. Earlier this spring, the city donated 15 buffalo to the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming, 17 to the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, and one to the Tall Bull Memorial Council in Douglas County.
“This is the second year we’ve transferred animals to tribal herds, and it’s something we’re very proud of as
a city,” Dennison says. “The work that many tribes are doing to bring back bison to their traditional lands is a powerful symbol of autonomy and self-determination, and it’s meaningful to be able to play a supporting role in their efforts. This will be our new standard.”
Bison recovery efforts have been both persistent and productive, and if buffalo are less plentiful than previously, they’re not exactly endangered, either. It’s estimated that about 500,000 of the grizzled grazers now live from sea to shining sea, about three quarters of them in private accommodations. And for all the sentimental weight they carry, buffalo are officially meat by the pound.
“One of the challenges of managing bison is that they exist in a gray area between wildlife and livestock. “They’re genetically and behaviorally wild animals that have never been domesticated like cattle, however the majority of today’s American bison are raised and classified as livestock. Colorado classifies bison exclusively as livestock, and the state recently denied a petition to expand the definition to wildlife.”
They certainly act like wildlife. Aboriginal behaviors observed at Genesee include forming a defensive cordon around vulnerable members of the herd, and healthy buffalo have been known to roll in the blood of an injured one, presumably to mislead any interested predators.
“Bison are naturally curious, but cautious, and they don’t like to be separated or on their own,” Dennison says. “They appear to many people to be docile like cattle, but they can be bad-tempered if they perceive that someone is in their space. I’ve seen people get charged, and it’s a scary experience to have 2,000 pounds of solid muscle and sharp horns barreling toward you in an instant. It’s amazing how fast they can go from standing to terrifying when they’re motivated.”
That’s not to say you shouldn’t come and commune with Genesee’s buffalo. Just try not to motivate them.
“It’s important to remember that a wire fence is just a suggestion to a bison. It won’t stop them if they want to get through. Visitors should stay 10 feet away from the fence and not approach the bison when they’re near the fence line.”
If the Genesee Buffalo Herd is small, its power to fire the imagination is large, and its potential to help coax new plenty from tired lands may be as great as the vast prairie sea.
“Bison are ecosystem engineers, and we’ve spent the last 150 years trying to fix conditions that the bison kept in balance for millions of years,” says Dennison. “Healthy grasslands are vital for a healthy planet, and bison are critical to thriving grasslands. For me, bison are evidence that even when we screw up, we can still nurture something of value and inspire future generations to do better.”
Real buffalo! And they’re right next to the road!
—Jennifer Matson, 11, Genesee, CO, 2022