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The City of Denver has maintained two herds of genetically pure bison, descendant from the last wild bison in North America, in Genesee and Daniels parks for more than 100 years. And for the last 35 years, the City has held annual auctions, selling some heirloom bison off as a means of culling the herd and controlling their numbers.
But, after a new deal between the City and the native Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma, those auctions might be over forever. Now, those bison will be more than just a highway tourist attraction and a stream of income for the City. Instead, they’ll be reintroduced to tribal lands, where they were run to near-extinction a century ago, to once again serve as a resource for the tribes who subsisted off them for generations.
“[The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes] were there in Denver before gold was found, and we were removed from Denver because there was gold found — and not by our choice,” Reggie Wassana, governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, says. “So it means a lot to us that [Denver Parks and Recreation (DPR)] reached out to us with this offer.”
Wassana says they were very proud and excited to receive the bison.
“Our bison are coveted,” Scott Gilmore, deputy manager of DPR, explains. “People really want our bison because they’re genetically pure — it helps their herds sustain genetic diversity and health.”
In 2020, Denver auctioned off 35 bison from its two herds for a total of $40,050. This year, it auctioned 36 bison for $40,550. But after the 2021 auction, Gilmore’s staff came to him concerned that DPR actually hadn’t sold enough bison. With this year’s impending drought, they were concerned the herd’s size would over-burden the park pastures they occupy.
“We had about 14 cows — adult females — that we were looking to get off the pastures to help with how we manage the range,” Gilmore says. “And I realized that we couldn’t do another auction because we just did one in March.”
That’s when Gilmore had an idea. The National Wildlife Federation, of which Gilmore is a board member, has a bison conservation program that aims to reestablish bison on tribal lands. DPR also works with several Native American groups, like the InterTribal Buffalo Council and the Tall Bull Memorial Council.
Gilmore called Bill and Rich Tall Bull, who he’d worked with in the past through DPR, to see if they knew of any native tribes that would be interested in acquiring the bison cows.
“They told me, ‘Scott, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma would take them tomorrow if you want to donate them,’” Gilmore says.
The Tall Bull Memorial Council put DPR in touch with the tribes, who quickly struck a deal. Not only would DPR donate this year’s excess bison to the tribe — 13 in total — but it’ll do away with the auction entirely for the next 10 years. Instead, all of the bison that would otherwise be sold to the highest bidder, will now be donated to the Cheyenne and Arapaho, where they’ll be incorporated into the tribes’ growing herd.
“We will get more use out of these buffalo than probably the person who would have purchased them at auction,” Wassana says. “They’ll be with us for a long time and their genes will go on in our breeding process.”
In addition to diversifying the Cheyenne and Arapaho bison herd’s genetics, Denver’s bison will help feed some of the tribes’ most vulnerable and provide for cultural rituals. Wassana explains that the Cheyenne and Arapaho have a program that distributes bison meat to tribe members who suffer from diabetes — a prevalent health issue among Native American peoples.
“We also use it to help feed the elders because it is leaner meat,” Wassana says. “And we do use the buffalo for ceremonies still to this day.”
To Gilmore, DPR and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, this seems like a perfect solution for dealing with Denver’s excess bison. First, because it returns these animals to the Native inhabitants of this region, but also because it’s helping to heal old wounds and build a relationship between the City of Denver and the tribes.
“The other reason that the [Cheyenne and Arapaho] Tribes were selected was because of their ties, culturally, to Colorado, and the Sand Creek Massacre,” Gilmore says. “This is actually a way of giving back the land to these tribes because the bison are a part of the land.”
“Just reaching out to the Tribes to build a relationship, a partnership, a friendship with us … that’s really the best thing,” Wassana says. “And we do carry that relationship into the future.”
Gilmore says that he plans on extending the 10-year contract for as long as the City of Denver has bison to donate. To him, this represents an “end goal” — a purpose for Denver’s coveted bison that the animals haven’t had before. And likewise, for Gov. Wassana and the people of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, it represents a step toward a goal they’ve had for centuries now.
“We just want to grow the herd so that it will become one of our independent resources once again,” Wassana says. “Like it used to be in the 1800s.”