By Published: Sept. 1, 2015


Hunted nearly to extinction by the time the University of Colorado was founded, the American buffalo owes its rebound mainly to private ranchers. Larry Strear of Boulder County has been raising herds for nearly 40 years.


By the time Larry Strear (Art’69) was in his mid-20s, he knew a lot about collecting art and raising turkeys.

An aunt in Denver with art dealers for friends and a fondness for watercolors whet his aesthetic appetite. At CU Boulder he developed an interest in printmaking, eventually acquiring works by Picasso, Dali and Braque.

Turkeys Strear had always known: His family was an owner of Longmont Foods, a large Colorado turkey-growing operation.

Of bison he knew nothing, but that was about to change.

In 1975 Strear, then 28 and working for the family business, bought a 130-acre horse ranch about 10 miles north of Boulder, in Longmont. He wasn’t sure the turkey business was for him and he thought he would try growing hay and other crops. He named the property Wild Flower Farm.

Strear had no plans to raise animals but agreed to let a tenant graze cattle there. He looked after them in exchange for use of the tenant’s farm equipment, a period he calls “five of the hardest years I worked in my life.”

When the men went separate ways in 1979, the tenant partially settled affairs with livestock — four Angus cows and two bison, one male, one female. The bison were a surprise.

“This isn’t funny,” Strear thought.

But his curiosity and sense of adventure got the best of him. Strear kept the bison — or buffalo, as they’re interchangeably called in the United States — got help from a rancher and began growing a herd while still working with his family. In 1988 Strear left the turkey business to ranch buffalo fulltime. By now he’s been at it longer than anyone else in Boulder County.

“It’s been profitable in years, and devastating in years,” says Strear, who lives on the ranch with his wife, Suzanne Chatburn-Strear, in a home full of oversize art books and bison relics. From their bedroom window they can watch the buffalo grazing in the front pasture.

At 68, Strear says he has no reason to give up on bison, and no inclination: “I just bought some more.”

By national standards, Strear’s fluctuating herd of 40 or so buffalo is about average. The various herds of Ted Turner — the CNN founder and by far America’s biggest, most famous bison rancher — number about 57,000. Regardless of herd size, Strear, Turner and thousands of other buffalo ranchers around the United States can make a common claim: Without them, the iconic animal of the American West and of CU-Boulder would be little more than a curiosity to ogle in parks and zoos.

The modern bison emerged in North America between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, scientists say. Deep into the 19th century, buffalo on the Great Plains numbered in the tens of millions.

Larry Strear on his ranch in Longmont, Colorado

Larry Strear has been raising bison at his Longmont, Colorado, ranch for nearly 40 years.

For millennia the shaggy, broad-shouldered bovines had been hunted in the West by Native Americans without major effects on population. But 19th-century settlement by gun-toting Euro-Americans on horseback proved calamitous, a disaster that accelerated with the post-Civil War construction of the transcontinental railroad and growing habitat loss.

Eager to harvest buffalo hides, furs and meat — and happy to deprive Native Americans of the same — settlers and the U.S. military hunted buffalo near to oblivion.

“In the 1880s, there’s really just remnant populations,” says Thomas Andrews, an associate professor of history at CU-Boulder who has written about buffalo. The bison, he says, became “kind of a novelty.”

By 1900, there were about 1,000 left.

Mercifully, a conservation effort was getting underway, led by a handful of Western ranchers and Eastern powerbrokers. In 1902 the Army began protecting a wild herd in Yellowstone National Park, and in 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt — honorary president of the recently formed American Bison Society — authorized creation of the National Bison Range in Montana. Small herds were started in Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Today, public herds of varying types and sizes exist in South Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and elsewhere. Private bison ranches operate in all 50 states. Indeed, the vast majority of buffalo — an estimated 220,000 in the U.S. and 180,000 in Canada, according to the National Bison Association — live on private ranches, where they’re raised for meat.

“That’s totally driving the whole thing,” says Strear, who sells his bison calves for breeding. “There’s not a market for them as pets.”

That the long-term survival of bison may depend on human consumers doesn’t bother John Graves (Bus’09), who recently became manager of the Ralphie Handlers, the 15-member student group that cares for CU’s live buffalo mascot and dashes her across the field during football games.

“I’ve heard many people say this many times: The best way to save a species that’s endangered is to eat them,” says Graves, 28, who also works on a South Boulder horse ranch and serves as president of the Rocky Mountain Buffalo Association. “Because the demand for bison is so high, it has saved the species. And people do a great job raising bison these days.”

CU students chose the buffalo as a mascot in 1934 after a national contest elicited more than 1,000 suggestions. Students rented a live buffalo at first, then a benefactor donated one in the early 1940s. The Ralphie Handler Program, begun informally in 1967, is now a varsity sport.

The North American buffalo population is estimated to be about 400,000, including 220,000 in the U.S. Bison ranches operation in all 50 states.

Competition to become a handler is fierce. As many as 70 students try out each year for a few open roster spots. The team trains 30 hours a week during the football season, including physical workouts and care for Ralphie.

Running with a buffalo, which unrestrained can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour, is nothing to take lightly.

“You don’t do it on horseback,” says Graves, who was a handler before he became coach. “It’s you and the animal.”

The current Ralphie, a 1,200-pound female called Ralphie V, and her predecessor were donated by Ted Turner, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to give a public herd to the city of Boulder. Ralphie V and her predecessor live on separate Adams County ranches, the precise locations of which are secret, a precaution against pranks by students at rival schools.

Strear, who recalls his CU experience fondly and whose daughter is a CU graduate student, personally disapproves of the mascot program. Because buffalo are social animals, he says, they should always be part of herds.

Graves himself advises people who acquire buffalo to get more than one. But he believes that Ralphie V, who lives alone on her ranch, gets the social interaction she needs from her handlers.

“We are her herd,” he says. “We see her every day, we get up close and personal. She knows who we are.”

He adds: “We treat her like a princess.”

Unquestionably, the buffalo is a powerful symbol for the CU community and a distinctive presence in collegiate athletics. Ralphie frequently makes news media lists of “best college mascots” and in 2013 was named “the greatest live mascot in college football” by Bleacher Report.

Strear’s list, if he made one, would look different. But he’s as enamored as anyone of the American buffalo. He admires its power and the remarkable landscape it represents. On a mid-summer day at Wild Flower Farm, his herd grazes mid-pasture before marching en mass to a lake, all in the shadow of the Front Range. A Swainson’s hawk glides overhead. A bull nuzzles a pregnant cow.

“She’s gonna calve,” says Strear. “Probably today.”

Photography by Morten Kolby