White buffalo cow and calf joining herd at Fort Worth refuge

Posted Wednesday, May. 01, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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After a controversial stint on the range at a giant Dallas gas station, a rare white buffalo and her still-wobbly newborn calf are about to hook up with the herd at the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge.

The 4-year-old bison cow has been in semisecret quarantine for about a month, and she gave birth to the calf Sunday. More tawny than white, the pair will join 28 other members of the refuge’s herd sometime Friday, said Rob Denkhaus, natural resources manager.

The 40-year-old herd and its two additions will move to a 56-acre pasture that borders the center’s main road. A 1-mile hiking trail loops the fenced plot, and — in anticipation of hordes of buffalo buffs wanting to get a glimpse — the refuge will keep two volunteer docents stationed at the site on coming weekends to clue visitors in on their whereabouts, Denkhaus said Wednesday.

The white buffalo took a strange path to Cowtown after being bred on a South Texas game ranch.

John Benda, the owner of Fuel City, a gas station/taco joint/convenience store on the edge of downtown Dallas, bought the pregnant bison and put her on display in mid-February in a fenced area along with several donkeys and longhorn cattle.

“I thought it would be cool for people to see the animals that used to roam here,” Benda said.

But American Indians were upset that the white buffalo, a sacred symbol of creation for Plains tribes, was being used like a “carnival sideshow,” said Eric Reed, a Choctaw Indian and Dallas lawyer specializing in American Indian legal issues.

“We don’t see her as a sacred white buffalo, but she is very symbolic. She didn’t get born white naturally. They manipulated the breeding so they could get a white one. But regardless of that, she’s still a buffalo and all buffalo are sacred to Indian people,” he said.

“What really concerned us was that when you went into the beer store, it said buy your 12-pack of beer and come see our sacred white buffalo. That was an offense because substance abuse has been a problem on Indian reservations,” Reed said.

“Using a bred-up white one to appear as a sacred one to sell booze was not kosher,” he said.

The Red Path Warrior Society, an American Indian group that aids veterans’ families, approached Benda with its concerns, said Yolanda Blue Horse, a healthcare worker and Lakota Indian from Denton County.

“It was disrespectful to me,” she said. “The white buffalo is a very symbolic thing to us. I don’t want to bash [Benda]. I think it was done out of ignorance.”

The gas station owner was responsive to concerns, Reed said.

“He couldn’t have been nicer. He got it. He apologized and offered to donate it to us. This is a happy ending,” he said.

Benda said he’s moved on from the white buffalo commotion.

“Now I’m concentrating on camels. I’ve always been fascinated by them. I bought two of them and I’m planning on bringing a pregnant one to downtown Dallas,” he said. “It will be cool.”

Benda first offered to send the white buffalo back to the game ranch where he got her, Reed said.

“But that’s a canned-hunt operation where some drunk oilman from Houston could shoot it and then pose with it like a great white hunter. We didn’t want that. We wanted her to stay in the area. She came here for a reason,” he said.

The Red Path Warrior Society kept the pregnant buffalo in McKinney until it worked out an arrangement with the Fort Worth refuge.

“We felt that the work the nature center does to educate people about the environment and nature made it the perfect home. We thought she could be used to connect to the American Indian tradition as an educational tool for children,” Reed said.

Technically, Denkhaus said, the buffalo cow is a beefalo.

Buffaloes are social animals, and the smallish 700-pound cow has been slowly introduced to the herd.

“She got her first nose-to-nose encounter through a fence yesterday. Bison are social, but at the same time they have a herd system and anybody that shows up has to figure out where they fit in the herd. We’re taking it slow so nobody gets run off or hurt,” Denkhaus said.

Letting bison be bison

The 3,621-acre refuge manages the herd with the aim of just letting them be bison.

“You allow them to fullfill their niche in the environment as a grazer and doing all the activities that buffalo do to positively impact the environment. … We’re trying to allow our herd to do everything that a bison herd is supposed to do,” Denkhaus said.

“One of the things important to us is that they can be bison. Which means if they are getting stressed out by too many people that they have a place to get away. We don’t want to increase their stress levels. We’re not a zoo. When you visit the nature center, there’s never a guarantee to see any of the animals,” Denkhaus said.

But the herd, which rotates on five pastures over 210 acres, is a big draw for the refuge, he said.

“You can see them in a setting that’s unlike any zoo,” Denkhaus said.

Besides the new members, the herd is composed of two bulls, 13 cows, five yearlings and eight calves.

‘A beautiful sight’

There should be ample opportunity to photograph the bison in coming weeks, but Denkhaus said the best moment could be way down the road.

“The prettiest scenes I’ve ever seen on this property all involved snow or frost. When they are blowing steam and their backs are covered in snow, that’s a beautiful sight,” he said.

The bison cow, which will nurse the calf until October or November, will soon start to lose her winter coat.

“She’s a very light-colored animal and she may get a little lighter as her nutrition gets better and her stress is reduced after being moved around. After next winter she might be even lighter,” he said.

Blue Horse says she’s happy with the conclusion of the white buffalo’s journey.

“It’s a win-win for everybody, but most of all it’s a win-win for her. It was exciting to hear she gave birth, it was good.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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