Amidst the devastating wildfires in central Colorado this week, a bit of good news to pass along: Royal Gorge Bridge Park welcomed a white buffalo bull calf over the weekend despite the entire surrounding region being engulfed in flames. Per the beleaguered zoo’s Facebook page, the little guy will be named, appropriately enough, Smokey.
Historically, white buffalos are thought to be exceedingly rare: The statistic cited most often is 1 in 10 million. Native Americans consider them so sacred that they traveled to Connecticut to hold a special naming ceremony for a light-skinned newborn a year ago, and Texans still mourn the unsolved death of the two-month-old white calf Lightning Medicine Cloud in 2012. But perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so surprised at these albino-like occurrences anymore; after all, there have been more than 25 white bison births since 1990. That’s out of a pool of only about 50,000 bison living the U.S. today, way down from a historic high of around 60 million in the early 1800s. About one-tenth of today’s population is free-roaming. The rest are raised on farms and cross-bred with cattle to create a hybridized form of livestock known as “beefalo” — conditions that likely allow light-colored pigmentation genes to cross between species. Meanwhile, the drastically reduced bison gene pool fosters recessive traits that carry significant implications for how efficiently the burly animals can dissipate excess heat from their skin. Now that DNA testing is more readily available, white bison birth rates should probably be reconsidered entirely at some point. These one-time aberrations seem to be here to stay.
Park officials say that a deeper dive into Smokey’s lineage will follow once things settle down. For now, his fortuitous arrival (and the ensuing media attention) is good karma for a wildlife sanctuary that can use all of the public support it can get at the moment.