Marty Homola came to Colorado from Michigan 40 years ago. When he arrived, he secured a job with Denver Mountain Parks. One of his many responsibilities was, and still is, to look after Denver’s Genesse beloved buffalo herd, one of two buffalo herds owned by the City of Denver.
With his home, also a part of Denver Mountain Parks, directly across from one of the herd’s pastures Marty has grown to know and understand the herd like no one else. I sat down with Marty and Sally White, Historian, Webmaster and seven year veteran of Denver Mountain Parks to learn more.
Here is what they had to say.
How did Denver end up with a buffalo herd?
Sally: Denver was trying to buy buffalo for the city zoo in the early 1900s. In 1903 or 1905 they got a bull from Texas. When Denver Mountain Parks started we had the Genesee Reserve. They thought it was a great ‘recuperative resort’, as they called it, and they brought all kinds of animals up here.
I don’t know if it was the original idea to have a buffalo herd as much as it was to have a wild animal zoo. They had all kinds of animals up here – pronghorn, mountain sheep, fallow deer and elk. The elk and buffalo herds were supplemented from the Yellowstone and Flathead Herds, and the bison were the animals that survived. The other animals did not just adjust as well.
Marty: They tried reindeer at one time. The animals they were trying to get started here were not from this area. It is kind of low for the mountain goats, and they are not really an animal you can keep in captivity very well, but the bison and the elk are the ones that survived the menagerie of animals once here.
I read there were only 7 buffalo remaining in the US at one time, and these are the descendants of them.
Marty: There were 500 buffalo remaining in the US in the 1880s or 1890s. There were 30 to 40 million buffalos originally.
Are the buffalo in Colorado descendants of the last remaining wild buffalo?
Sally: It is a little hard to untangle that. Yellowstone had both a wild herd and a domestic herd. We are not sure exactly which herd these buffalo came from. The Flathead Indians also had a herd. It is hard to sort out which animals came from where because there was more than one episode of bringing them here.
How many buffalo are there in the Genesee buffalo herd?
Marty: We have around 26 adult buffalo and about 18 newborns this year. At the Daniels Park [the other Denver Mountain Parks buffalo herd] there are about the same number. We have about 60 total bison in Denver Mountain Parks.
Tell me about life taking care of Denver’s buffalo herd.
Marty: The buffalo are a part of Denver Mountain Parks. In total we have around 14,000 acres of mountain park land. I help maintain this land and its facilities, as well as the bison. Taking care of the bison is only about 2% of the time we spend in everything we do within Denver Mountain Parks, and most of that time is when we are weaning the babies from their mothers, vaccinating them and drawing blood.
We have an auction every year and sell off the surplus buffalo which is about 25 to 30 calves annually. Some years are better than other. This year we had 20 calves, but three got killed by a bull.
Is it normal for buffalo to kill their babies?
Marty: No. I got rid of the bull that did it. He was older. I do not know what the deal was. He just started killing calves.
Sally: My theory is that bison are like male lions who kill babies that are not their own. Perhaps he was killing calves that were fathered by the other bull.
Marty: He also killed an old bull two or three years ago. You do not see that happening often in our herd. Maybe that happens more often in the wild. If it happens here it is mostly by accident, if they start sparing and hook horns, then that is the end of it.
How long do the bison live?
Sally: Until they are about 25 or 30 in captivity.
Marty: They don’t generally live as long in the wild. All they do up here is eat grass and walk around.
Sally: And roll in the dirt.
Marty: They don’t have predators. We feed them in the winter. They are well taken care of. We do have mountain lions, but they are no threat to buffalo. The coyotes are not a threat. When we had elk we raised them along with the bison, and they were a different story. The coyotes would kill the elk calves.
Would you see the coyotes actually killing the elk calves?
Marty: Yes, the coyotes had a system. There would be four or five of them, and they would get the mother to chase a few, and then the others would grab the baby. I saw it happen a couple of times. That is Mother Nature. That is what happens in the wild every day.
A lot of people asked me to ask you if there is any way to predict what pasture they are in?
Marty: We rotate them in different pastures. The whole fenced in area is about 750 acres. Because we have so much grass this year I let them roam freely, so it kind of depends on where they choose to be. I have had a lot of people and a lot of interest in them this year which has required me to have them in a certain place where tour groups or dignitaries can see them. We want people to have interest in the animals. We think they are an important to the mountain parks.
The only time we can predict where they will be is in the winter because we feed them. Otherwise it is really hard to predict where they will be. With our masterplan the idea is to put in several overlooks so people can see them at any time. One of the goals of the mountain parks is to help educate people.
Bison are not like cattle. They like to move around. They do not stay in one spot. They are social. When they get tired of one spot they say, “Hey let’s move on.” [Laughing]
Have you ever had any buffaloes escape?
Marty: This year we have had a couple. One incident was my fault. After I fed them I think they thought I had more food in the back of the truck. I had left the gate open and they came running down to the truck. Two buffalo ended up in the front yard of the house – a bull and a cow. So we put some hay down by the fence. They were getting antsy to get back with the herd, so as soon as we opened the gate they ran back in.
I had a calf squeeze out through the gate also. That was the first time that happened since I have been here, and that was pretty intense.
Marty: We couldn’t catch it for three hours. Even though they are small they are very powerful. They are 150 pounds. It was an ex-football player who lives over here who finally grabbed him and jumped on him which caused both him and the calf to go over backwards. I then jumped on top of both of them and wrapped a rope around all four of its legs. We had a guy with an ATV take it back to its mother who was charging the fence the entire time.
I heard buffalo can jump over fences.
Marty: Our fences are eight feet high, but I think they could jump a six foot fence if they wanted to. They could also go through the fence if they wanted. That fence is just a diversion.
One good way to tell if you are invading a buffalo’s space is that he will put his tail right up in the air and when he does that you know you are too close. There are other times where they will be eating and there will be people near the fence, and they will hit the fence right near where the people are.
I read a story about a buffalo in the herd by the name of Nickel who liked cream soda.
Marty: Nickel was breeched when he was coming out of his mother. She bled badly running around trying to get him out. I was not there to see that so that is only speculation, but when I found him he was still partially in her. I pulled him out. He was already strong enough to stand up. What happened was that we were the first live things he saw, so we put an imprint in his mind that he was one of us.
Nickel was born breech, and his mother didn’t survive. When I found him, he was alive and strong enough to stand up.
So you were Nickel the buffalo’s mom?
Marty: You can put an imprint on an animal really quick. We brought him inside. My dogs licked all the stuff off him, and I went to the zoo and got mother’s milk. The vet told me if he drank half he would probably survive. I brought it home and he drank the whole thing. We started feeding him milk. We brought him back to health and we kept him up by the house for about a year, but he got too big. He busted the door down once trying to get in with the dogs. So I put him out in the pasture, which he did not like at all.
He had a path where he would go back and forth in front of the fence all night long. He wanted to come back to the house, but we did not let him. We would go visit him, but he would not go with the herd for years. With time he did, but if there were people by the fence he would stand there all day long and watch them. The Denver Mountain Parks Police would come up and they thought it was cool to give him cream soda. It got so that if they were in their car, and they did not see him they would hit their siren a few times, and he would come running from nowhere because he knew it was them.
People started giving him these big liters of cream soda and he would get hyper, but that slowed down after awhile.
What happened to Nickel?
Marty: He lived for 10 or 12 years. I was away, and when I came back I asked where Nickel was, and people told me they had not seen him for a few days. I found him in the tunnel on the ice. He had broken his neck. I don’t know what happened to him. He was freaked out about going through the tunnel. He would go very slowly, but the herd wouldn’t. That may have been the best thing that ever happened. He was confused.
Sally: It was a sad story. A lot of people like to tell the Nickel story, but for us it is not a good story.
Marty: It was a bad thing to raise him like that. It is not good for wild animals to imprint on humans. It screws them up. It screws their minds up.
Sally: And then they can’t fit in either place.
Marty: They can’t fit with the herd. They can’t fit with them humans. They don’t belong in either place. That is the sad part that nobody knows about. He was a cool animal. I probably should not have done it, but what was the alternative?
Is there any chance they would ever be reintroduced to the wild?
Marty: They have talked about that in Eastern Colorado. There is a virus in buffalo and if the cattle get it, it will cause them to abort. I don’t think there are any cases of it but the ranchers use it as an excuse to kill buffalo when they get out of Yellowstone and get into their haystacks.
Sally: In the plains they have talked about restoring a buffalo commons, but there isn’t any wild really left that is big enough. Ted Turner has a lot of land where they run, I think, pretty openly but they don’t have the space to have their natural movements. One of the problems with the original buffalo herds is when we completed the transcontinental railroad it split the herd in half which made it easier to eliminate them. They do run wild in the Yukon.
What does the buffalo herd do for the city of Denver?
Sally: I think it is an asset to the city. I think there is a certain amount of pride with the herd, and with the fact that Denver is a part of the conservation of the buffalo.
Marty: Denver Mountain Parks has Red Rocks and Buffalo Bill’s Grave and Echo Lake Lodge, but the buffalo are also a really big attraction. There is not one person who goes down I-70 that does not slow down to see if they can see them.
How many Mountain Parks are there?
Sally: 46 properties, of which 22 are developed parks.
Marty: We have a lot of different zones in our mountain parks from prairie to high alpine. We own Summit Lake on Mt. Evans. We own a portion of Winter Park and Mary Jane. Our crew back in the 40s built a lot of Mary Jane and Winter Park.
Anything else you would like to add?
Marty: We have a Genesee Masterplan, and I think in the long run if they stick to it, it will bring in a lot of people and give them more things to do with herd. The herd is so popular with people.
Sally: Many of the Denver Mountain Park green spaces are not developed. Many of them are about wildlife protection, watershed protection and green space. As a community we value these things. They are important, especially as we are talking about sustainability. Denver Mountain Parks are less than a fraction of a percent of the city budget, and in that Denver is able to give something back something very positive to the environment and the people.
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