The Fort Marks National Bison Day — and Buffalo's Comeback — By Serving Lots of It

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National Bison Day is November 7, but the celebration has already begun. Last week, in honor of the return of American bison with distinctive Yellowstone bloodlines to northern Colorado, Fort Collins’s Pateros Creek Brewing Company released Prairie Thunder Imperial Brown Ale, to celebrate — and raise money for — the Larimer Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, ten bison released November 1 in the Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, which is managed by the City of Fort Collins.

And on Monday, the National Bison Day observance moved up to Morrison, where The Fort is marking National Bison Day by offering a special bison-tasting menu through November 8. The Fort, which the late Sam Arnold designed fifty years ago as a scale-model replica of Bent’s Old Fort, specializes in Old West recipes and regional game and is renowned for its buffalo specialties. In fact, outside of this special, it serves more than 70,000 bison dinners every year. 

In honor of National Bison Day, we reached out to Holly Arnold Kinney, Sam's daughter, who grew up at the Fort and runs it today. "In the 1960s, the Fort served fresh buffalo steaks but the public preferred beef to buffalo, 90 percent to 10 percent, as many they thought it was very tough and gamey," she recalls. "Many had tried it at some other local places, but usually had a tough old bull, and the restaurant had it cooked too long, which gave the tough and gamey taste.

"By reading the mountain men diaries and Indian accounts, my father knew that the best meat came from one-and-a-half-year-old yearlings, which are the hardest to hunt as their mother and aunties protected them in the herd. We always insisted on processing younger animals, and our main supplier was "Bison Pete " Gardner from Wheatland, Wyoming," she continues. "He loved the animals and loved to watch them run on his land, with their independent nature. Through the ranching industry, it grew from 100,000 estimated buffalo in the 1960s to today there are an estimated 450,000 head of buffalo in North America. Today, over 95 percent of our guests prefer buffalo over beef due to its good taste and nutritional benefits." 

The Fort's $39, three-course buffalo dinner special this week includes Rocky Mountain oysters and braised buffalo tongue as appetizers, followed by house salad with fresh bread and muffins, then a five-ounce buffalo sirloin steak with sides and two buffalo BBQ ribs in Jack Daniel’s BBQ sauce, and concluding with a scoop of the Fort’s Mexican chocolate ice cream garnished with a buffalo biscochito cookie.

"Buffalo (aka American Bison) is still a specialty meat and expensive, as it is expensive to range feed and ranch these animals who have leaner bodies and less meat to sell per animal," Kinney notes. "The comeback of the animal that was almost extinct at the turn of the twentieth century is due to the ranching industry, including the Native American Bison Coop, and today to the 'Ranch-to-Table' movement and Paleo Diet." We're particularly partial to the bison appetizers on the regular menu, which include not just the tongue and Rocky Mountain oysters (arguably Colorado’s signature food — although this state, unlike so many others, does not have an official food — yet), roasted bison marrow bones, and those ribs — which could be the best BBQ ribs from any animal you’ll find on the Front Range. Wash them down with trade whiskey — “fine” bourbon flavored with red pepper, tobacco and black gunpowder — and you’ll know how the West was won. For more information, go to thefort.com or call 303-697-4771. 

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