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What to expect when the buffalo are expecting

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Rocky Mountain PBS will be covering the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge as part of production for Colorado Experience season 11, set to premiere this fall. Follow along for behind-the-scenes content and release of premier dates. 


COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — The clock ticked closer to sunset and strong winds almost pushed her back inside her car, but Montoya Whiteman was determined to get a glimpse of the first baby buffalo born at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge this season.  

“Oh my God. Hello, little baby,” she said, looking through binoculars. “Are you going to eat? Eat. Nurse. Nurse. How sweet — that's just so sweet.”   

Whiteman wants to name the new buffalo herd member Windy after the breezy day it entered the world this April.

Since the birth of that first calf, refuge workers say at least 17 other newborn buffalo have joined the herd.  

Spring marks the first birthing season for the buffalo herd at the Commerce City refuge since last year’s announcement expanding the herd’s grazing land by 4,500 acres. 

Whiteman is happy about the expansion and wants to see even more buffalo at the refuge in the future. Whiteman, one of more than 30 longterm volunteers at the refuge, usually works on weekends, and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma. She believes her connection to buffalo goes almost as deep as her DNA. 

“The bison are resilient. There's over 250, hopefully more by the end of the summer with all these new babies,” said Whiteman, who aims to be a voice for Indigenous people, the animals and especially the buffalo of the Colorado prairie. 

“It's a story of resilience that parallels the story of resilience with the bison and also with Indigenous peoples,” she said.  

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge has helped restore buffalo to their habitat after mass killings in the late 19th century led to the animal's near-extinction.

Buffalo bring ecological benefits to the Colorado grasslands in several ways: by eating grass at different heights, which replenishes the grasses and provides nesting grounds for birds, rolling around in the dirt creating wallows that fill up with drinking water after rain, and creating microclimates with their hooves as they churn the soil.   

[Watch now: Colorado Experience: Return of the Buffalo]

“[The buffalo] have really good lives here, and I'm really happy for that,” said Whiteman. 

In her three years of volunteering at the refuge, Whiteman has witnessed the beginning and end of buffaloes’ lives. She has even photographed the first moments of love between baby and mother buffalo. 

Recently, she witnessed the end of an 18-year-old buffalo's life — on average, they live to between 10 and 20 years. Whiteman said she feels privileged to be able to witness all this so close to her home.  

“The Rocky Mountain Arsenal is such a special place,” Whiteman said. “I feel like I have a personal connection. I think there's a strong cultural connection. And I actually love coming out here.” 

Before she began volunteering, Whiteman visited the Refuge for ten years. Part of the draw has been photographing the more than 300 animals and plant species protected in the wildland.   

During 2020, Whiteman estimates she went to the refuge around 100 times, or about twice a week. She knows the refuge so well, she has to challenge herself to slow down when she takes another trip around it.  

“I remember things that happen in various places like, I remember I saw the marshes by the lakes with the redwing blackbirds. There's like hundreds of them this time of year, and they're all hollering for their mates, and they live in those marshes,” said Whiteman as an example.  

For visitors looking for directions to find a certain animal's favorite hang-out spot, Whiteman, who sits at the information desk within the visitor’s center, acts as a guide. She’ll often whip out animal figurines with a map to help visitors find the buffalo.  

“[Montoya] just brings this warmth and wealth of knowledge about the refuge to help other visitors be able to find their way and and find that special connection with the refuge,” said Sarah Metzer, the visitor services manager at the refuge.  

“She's very willing to share her background to in terms of uplifting those Indigenous voices within conservation and within the community and I think just we love seeing that that energy and her smile that she brings,” Metzer said. 

Whiteman takes thousands of photos every year at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. She’s an expert at finding every animal’s favorite spot.
Photo: Peter Vo, Rocky Mountain PBS. 

Still, Whiteman believes in the power of self-discovery.  

“Sometimes I'm not really as forthcoming with that because I really feel like in order for them to really enjoy the Arsenal for what it is and the nature that's here, the wildlife that's here, they need to experience it for themselves,” she said.  

The 15,000 acres that make up the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge now looks almost how Whiteman’s relatives experienced them for generations. But years of chemical weapons manufacturing by the U.S. Army, followed by decades of pesticide production, contaminated the soil. In 1987, the Federal government classified the arsenal as a Superfund site and began cleaning it up. The refuge opened in 2004. 

Whiteman believes that history is important for visitors to know.  

“And it was restored back to what we think that it looked like before. And a large part of it was due to the eagles that were here and the wildlife that was here,” she said. 

After chemical production was shut down, park rangers discovered bald eagle nests, which prompted establishing what had been an arsenal into a national wildlife refuge.  

For many who work at the refuge, this was the ultimate sign of Mother Nature winning.  

“I would hope that when people come here that they know the story of the Arsenal, but they also have great respect for the place,” said Whiteman. 

For Whiteman that means obeying the speed limit on the wildlife drive, respecting the rules of staying in the car where it's required and not disturbing wildlife. Especially in the Spring as more buffalo and other species give birth Whiteman and Metzer urge caution alongside this exciting time.  

“As the deer fawns are going to start dropping probably in a week or two here,” said Metzer, “the defense mechanism is for the babies to stay quiet and hidden while mom goes out to forage and get the necessary food that she needs to make milk for that baby.” 

Metzer said visitors will sometimes call or — in rare instances — try to move a baby fawn despite mom being nearby and baby being safe. She says the best thing to do is to call if there is any concern, and staff will check on the animals.  

The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge is open from sunrise to sunset and free for all visitors. Visitors can access a wildlife drive and miles of hiking trails, with directions supplied at the visitor’s center near the entrance.  


Amanda Horvath is the managing producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. amandahorvath@rmpbs.org

Peter Vo is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. petervo@rmpbs.org

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Rocky Mountain PBS uses the word "buffalo" when referring to the mammal whose scientific name is "bison bison." While water and African buffalo are the common names for similar animals, many Native American tribes use the word "buffalo." And as the animals are so integral to the physical and spiritual lives of Native peoples, Rocky Mountain PBS uses this term to refer to this animal in non-scientific settings. Learn more here. 

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