High Wire Buffalo Ranch
by Marla Norman, Publisher
One of the iconic symbols for the American West, Buffalo roamed the central U.S. plains in massive herds until the 19th Century. Then, the great beasts nearly became extinct, through a combination of hunting and diseases contracted from domestic cattle.
Fortunately, Buffalo have made a dramatic resurgence. Over a half-million Buffalo are estimated to exist now. Some are on national parks, but the vast majority are thriving on private ranches – well over 4,500 ranches currently. High Wire, in Hotchkiss, Colorado is one.
But finding the ranch is a bit tricky — forget about GPS. I wander along a series of narrow dirt roads, hoping I’ve chosen the right one. And as the road climbs high over the North Fork Valley, near Paonia Valley, I pray that the skinny switchbacks will end…soon!
Eventually I find myself on top of a grassy mesa with spectacular mountain views. Just the kind of place you’d expect to find a Buffalo ranch. Dave and Sue Whittlesey greet me at the door of their home then we all drive down to meet their herds of Buffalo and Elk, up close and personal.
The Elk are an unexpected treat, and I’m luckier still, because a number of calves have been born within the past few weeks. The baby elk are adorable with their long, fragile legs. The conversations — high-pitched bleats and little squeaks — between moms and babies is heart melting.
Heart stopping is to sit a few feet away from the mammoth Buffalo, who weigh between 1,000 to 1,400 pounds. They are magnificent. When they shake their huge wooly heads, you feel as if the ground will begin to vibrate. Adorable Buffalo calves stick close to their moms. Although they weigh over 30 pounds at birth, they look pint-sized in comparison to their immense parents.
I wonder how the Elk and Buffalo get along. Dave and Sue confirm that they are absolutely compatible. In the wild, Elk typically follow Buffalo herds, who eat the coarser grasses, leaving the shorter, thinner blades for the Elk to consume.
As I observe the animals, Dave and Sue explain the genesis of their operation. High Wire Ranch was originally founded in Steamboat Springs in 1981. Dave realized immediately that he needed to build higher fences for his Buffalo than his neighbors had for their cattle. The taller fencing inspired the name: High Wire Ranch.
In 1999, the Whittleseys sold the property, since land prices in Steamboat were becoming more valuable as the ski area grew. The couple then re-established a larger ranch in Hotchkiss on 320 acres. They rotate their herds of approximately 85 Buffalo and 85 Elk between 14 different pastures.
In the last few years, both Elk and Buffalo meat have become increasingly popular because the meat is higher in protein than beef and lower in fat and cholesterol. Also appealing is that the Buffalo and Elk at High Wire are fed a diet of 100% pasture grasses and harvested hay, never grain. None of the pastures are sprayed with pesticide or herbicides and the animals live happy, hormone-free lives, roaming the mountain fields.
Dave and Sue market their own products online at highwireranch.com. Or, if you happen to be in Aspen on a Saturday, look for them at the Farmer’s Market in June through October. They’ll happily share their favorite Buffalo Osso Bucco recipe.