Where the Buffalo Moan

They’ve been worshiped, they’ve been slaughtered. Now bison are back—so why won’t you buy some burger?

In the 1930s, Denver started another herd in Daniels Park, just off I-25 near Sedalia. "They are mainly a tourist attraction, but the city auctions the surplus animals to bison ranchers every year," says A.J. Tripp, superintendent of the Denver Mountain Parks system. "They are a great animal -- easy keepers."

By the early 1970s, there were about 30,000 head across the country. But although buffalo had been a staple for the first residents of the West, it didn't start to catch on again as something to eat until later that decade, when a handful of wealthy and occasionally eccentric businessmen began to raise buffalo and market such buffalo by-products as clothes, painted skulls and meat. (Although the words "bison" and "buffalo" are used interchangeably, the American Buffalo is not a true buffalo. Its closest relative is the European Bison and the Canadian Woods Bison, not the buffalo of Asia or Africa, such as the Cape Buffalo or Water Buffalo.)

In the 1980s, small cattle ranchers began to suffer as beef prices dropped dramatically. Some of the more adventurous ranchers took up bison -- in many cases, one animal at a time -- to supply the growing market. The industry got a big boost and a lot of publicity in the mid-'80s when Ted Turner, the outspoken, high-profile billionaire who founded CNN and Turner Network Television, bought a ranch and a few head of Kansas buffalo. (Now, with a herd of nearly 20,000 grazing on eleven ranches across the West, Turner is the biggest buffalo rancher in the nation.)

Making a killing: A display of bison by-products at the Denver Buffalo Company.
Brett Amole
Making a killing: A display of bison by-products at the Denver Buffalo Company.

In 1989, a Denver hotel magnate named Will McFarlane decided to sell his Denver-based hotel empire and buy a 13,414-acre ranch in Ramah, Colorado. Like many of the other leaders of the bison industry -- including Turner and former Seagram's CEO Edgar Bronfman -- McFarlane made his millions in another industry and got interested in buffalo almost as a hobby. He and former partner Doug Stewart bought 150 head and began the Denver Buffalo Company. They raised bison for several years before McFarlane decided that there were other people who were doing it better; he sold the ranch in 1995 and now concentrates solely on the sale and marketing of bison products.

Today the Denver Buffalo Company is the largest marketer of bison products in the world, selling everything from fresh and frozen meat to buffalo leather clothing, accessories, artwork and jewelry.

McFarlane's empire includes the signature Denver Buffalo Company restaurant, at 1109 Lincoln Street, a deli, gift shop and art gallery next door, and a sprawling cluster of offices across the street on the ninth floor of the Chancery building, where he can look out the windows onto his restaurant. He also owns the Buffalo Bar and Grill in Idaho Springs and maintains an extensive Web site where customers can buy meat directly.

The company sells the equivalent of 200 to 400 animals a month and has sales between $7 million and $10 million a year, giving it between 20 and 25 percent of the entire market for USDA-approved bison meat.

Typically sporting jeans and a modest silver belt buckle with galloping buffalo, the 66-year-old McFarlane looks a little bit like rugged movie actor Jack Palance; he plays the part of the outdoorsman well, too. But McFarlane is as smooth a salesman as they come. Because of him, Denver has become a center of the bison industry. Because of him, the federal government agreed to prop up the prices of ground buffalo in 1998 and 1999.

"People who raise bison today are making a very, very good living," McFarlane says. "But that can end if the economics collapse. This is an industry that was created from scratch, and it is based on pure supply and demand. If you create too much supply, then prices will go down. That's it. So what happens if you grow supply by 20 percent and don't grow the demand at 20 percent? The answer is pretty clear."

What happened was that several million pounds of excess trim built up in freezers around the country. "This is an unsophisticated, agrarian industry," he says, "and some people didn't want anyone to know that this was happening. We knew it. The North American Bison Cooperative knew it, but the industry did not."

In late 1997, McFarlane and a local USDA representative met over a buffalo steak dinner at McFarlane's restaurant. The rep told him that with all this inventory of trim accumulating, he might consider something called Section 32 of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of August 24, 1935, a government provision that allows the USDA to buy surplus agricultural products in order to keep prices from crashing. "And that started the wheels moving," McFarlane recalls.

In January 1998 he hired an agricultural lobbyist and went to Washington, D.C., with Ken Throlson, the chairman of the board of the New Rockford, North Dakota-based North American Bison Cooperative (NABC), a 350-member rancher-run cooperative that processes about two-thirds of the USDA-inspected buffalo meat for the U.S. market. "We did a full dog-and-pony show," McFarlane says. "Everyone from the USDA was there to sample product and eat it and hear about it."

The lobbyist also hit up Congress, especially lawmakers from Colorado and North Dakota. "It took us two months, but we educated Washington about what a bison was," McFarlane says, "and they took to it."

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