A rare breed

Rick Spitzer
Special to the Daily
Rick Spitzer | Special to the Daily
Rick Spitzer |

GENESEE — Bison! Many people from the valley, who head toward Denver, drive past exit 254 at 75 mph and never notice them. Focused on their day ahead, they pass by Genesee Park and never see them. They are there and have been since 1914. Genesee Park totals 2,413 acres, and in an area that spans both sides of Interstate 70 are 40-50 bison in a herd that occupies 743 acres of that park.

Decades of hunting brought the bison to near extinction. In 1905, the American Bison Society was founded with the objective of saving the last 500-600 bison in North America from extinction. In 1914, Denver created the bison park as a tourist attraction to help with that effort. What is ironic is that near this location on I-70 at exit 256, and approximately four miles north, is the grave of William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill). Cody died in 1917 and was buried in Lookout Mountain Park. A museum is at the site. By some estimates, as a professional hunter Cody killed more than a hundred animals at a single stand and many thousands in his career. Many were shot from trains as they crossed the plains. It is believed that 30 million or more bison once roamed the grasslands of the Great Plains. The value of the hides and the meat were part of the motivation to hunt these animals, but there was another motivation.

The Indians relied upon and hunted buffalo for thousands of years. This interdependence between Indian and buffalo provided not only food, clothing and shelter but almost all of their needs. For many, their religions also centered around the buffalo. The white man changed all that with their horses and guns. The Indians obtained those horses and guns from the Spanish and that allowed them to kill buffalo more easily. When the settlers moved out on the plains, Indians were a threat. Some believed that the ways of the Indians threatened the white man’s existence.

Removing the buffalo would drive out the Indians. The slaughter of buffalo was not immediate but reached a peak around the 1870s. As the market for buffalo, particularly their hides, emerged in the 1820s, the bison population began to decline. In Colorado, the last bison in the wild was killed in South Park in 1897.

Denver obtained the bison for the Genesee herd from what was believed to be the country’s wildest herds, the bison in Yellowstone National Park. A few years ago, both Denver bulls, who lead the herd, were found to be free of genetic markers found in cattle. Denver is one of a handful of cities and counties that own bison. It is believed that today, there are about 20,000 wild bison, mostly in Yellowstone, and more than 200,000 on ranches where they are raised for hides and meat. Some of the bison used for livestock have the genetic markers of cattle.

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a thousand pounds

The American buffalo (Bison bison) is only found in North America. Most people refer to it as the buffalo, though it is only distantly related to the Asian water buffalo and African buffalo. The two American subspecies are the plains bison (Bison bison bison), and the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). Bison are the largest of our hoofed animals and also the largest terrestrial mammals in North America. A bull bison can weigh close to a ton and cows up to 1,000 pounds. Generally, they have dark brown shoulders, with a massive hump and a lighter brown on the rest of the body. Their shaggy head, and horns, found on both sexes give them a formidable appearance. The only natural predators were wolves and grizzly bears.

Bison were migratory and circled the Great Plains. They were most abundant on the plains, but also found in the mountain parks, in forests and above timberline. These animals have been around for 2,000 to 50,000 years. The ongoing drought in Colorado revealed 2,090-year-old bison-horn cores in 2002 that were above tree line in melting snow fields. In 2010, a skull and horns of a “gigantic” Ice Age bison, from at least 12,000 years ago, were uncovered at a fossil dig site near Snowmass.

Bison breed in late July through September, and the herd exhibits much restlessness during breeding season. These animals can be belligerent, unpredictable and dangerous. The cows will have a single calf 9 1/2 months later. Their lifespan is 20-30 years.

Next time you are headed to Denver, stop and check out these magnificent animals. At times the animals are on the north side of the road at exit 254. For a closer look at the animals on the south side of the road you can turn south at exit 253 and take the first left. After a short distance on a dirt road you will reach the enclosure.

Rick Spitzer is the author of “Colorado Mountain Passes,” published by Westcliffe Publishers and available at The Bookworm, City Market, Amazon and many stores across the state. The book provides photos and text about the history, lore, wildlife and scenery around the passes of Colorado.

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