Skip to main content

Colorado Experience | Return of the Buffalo Parts 1 & 2

From the beginning of their existence, many American Indian tribes have been deeply connected to the buffalo and used the buffalo as a primary source of food, clothing, tools and spirituality. 

“We reached the zenith of our existence on the earth because of the buffalo,” said Rick Williams, local scholar and advocate. He is also a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation and is part Cheyenne. 

The way of life for the tribes who called Colorado home changed drastically as settlers targeted American Indians and buffalo in lethal ways. Buffalo went from an estimated 70 million that roamed across North America to only a few hundred left at the turn of the 20th century. Throughout the 1900s conservationists, bison ranchers and tribes slowly built back up herds saving this animal from extinction. Currently there are about 500,000 bison living throughout the country. 

Government entities, nonprofits, ranchers and tribes are working to further restore the national mammal to its homeland. In Colorado, Denver Parks and Recreation maintain two herds for conservation and then transfer extra bison to tribes; the Southern Ute Tribe is using their bison herd to feed tribal members; bison ranchers have adapted to better ways to raise bison by letting them live independently off prairie grasslands; conservation herds have also recently received more funding for space and maintenance for the buffalo. 

More than an animal, more than the environment, these episodes explore the impact the return of the buffalo can have. 

The first episode premiered Oct. 12 and the second premiered Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS and our YouTube

You can watch both episodes below. 

Colorado Experience | Return of the Buffalo, Part 1

Colorado Experience | Return of the Buffalo, Part 2

Buffalo Facts

Learn more about our national mammal the bison at the Department of Interior website

  • Bison bison is the scientific name for the animal but culturally they have been known as buffalo for centuries.
  • Tatanka is the Lakota word for buffalo, Koots is the Ute word for buffalo, Heneecee is the Arapaho word for buffalo.
  • Male bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand six feet tall, female bison can weigh up to 1,000 pounds.
  • Bison calves weigh between 30 to 70 pounds at birth and are a rust orange color and affectionately known as "red dogs."
  • Bison can run up to 35 miles per hour and are extremely agile; they can jump high fences, spin around quickly and are strong swimmers.
  • Buffalo primarily eat grasses, weeds and leafy plants and use their heads to plow through snow to eat grass in the winter.
  • Bison can live up to 20 years.
  • Buffalo roll in dirt to deter flies and shed fur in an action called "wallowing" which creates watering holes for other creatures.

Buffalo vs. Bison

With the upcoming release of Ken Burns’ "The American Buffalo" and RMPBS’ "Colorado Experience | Return of the Buffalo," many will wonder about the interchangeable use of the words buffalo and bison. 

So let’s dive in.

Bison (pictured above) is the scientific name for the large mammals found across North America and Europe.

Water and African buffalo (pictured above) are the common names for two other creatures that are similar in physicality and occupy a similar space in the ecosystem that live in Asia and Africa. However, neither of those have the word “buffalo” in their scientific names either. 

When Europeans first colonized North America and saw these animals, they called them buffalo. This misnomer was eventually adopted by many American Indian tribes.

Today, most American Indian tribes refer to these animals, which are so integral to the physical and spiritual lives of Native peoples, as buffalo. Given the cultural ties and history with using the name buffalo, the title of these films were intentionally chosen.

Learn more about buffalo in Colorado

Behind the scenes with buffalo handlers at the University of Colorado

Ralphie is the live buffalo mascot for University of Colorado and those who take care of her need intense training physically and mentally. 

Locations of buffalo herds in Colorado

Note: This map does not include all commercial herds raised for meat production or other products, to find that you can search the Rocky Mountain Bison Association website.

Red points are herds not open for public tours. Blue points are herds available for public viewing. 

Spotlight Newsletter

Community stories from across Colorado and updates on your favorite PBS programs, in your inbox every Tuesday.

Sign up here!