Longform

Where the Buffalo Moan

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Cody is one of the most recognizable figures of the Old West and became a legend later in his life when his exploits -- both real and made-up -- were popularized in dime novels and in Cody's traveling Wild West show. But he is vilified by many Native Americans, especially the Cheyenne, because he fought against them as part of the U.S. Fifth Cavalry and because he is a symbol of the destruction of their sacred buffalo.

Cody is buried in the Colorado foothills at the summit of Lookout Mountain, which looks down over a small herd of buffalo owned by the City of Denver. The herd was started in 1913 with seven animals, one of several attempts across the country to help repopulate the nearly extinct buffalo. Today the animals, 24 cows and two bulls, roam about 500 acres of the 23,500-acre Genesee Park and can cross I-70 through an underground tunnel. Visible from the highway, the herd has become a landmark and a symbol of the New/Old West.

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.)

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.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes