BEND, Ore. (AP) – Pendleton Woolen Mills is making new Navajo-style blankets using wool and blended hair shed by an unusual herd of white buffalo in central Oregon.

Ranching experts say fewer than 50 white buffalo, or American bison, live in the U.S., The Oregonian reported.

On a sanctuary east of Bend, 11 of them roam acres of isolated juniper forest under the care of Cynthia Hart-Button and her husband, Charles Button. It's one of the larger collections of white buffalo.

“I would rather Robert Redford and Kevin Costner were doing this,” quipped Button of two popular film stars known for their environmental concerns. “But it fell in my backyard.”

Buffalo usually are black or brown. White buffalo are produced when recessive genes trigger the unusual trait. They are not albino.

Some Native American tribes consider them sacred.

“The significance of the white buffalo has been recognized by all the tribes that are buffalo culture people,” Jim Stone, a Yankton-Yanktonai Sioux, told The Oregonian. Stone is executive director of the Intertribal Buffalo Council in Rapid City, S.D., an organization created to restore buffalo to Indian nations.

The white buffalo's presence is a prophesy of spiritual rebirth – “an indicator of better times coming to tribal people,” Stone said. “Historically, that has been the view.”

The first of the Oregon herd was born in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1997 into a small herd of black bison owned by Dena Riley and her husband, Jim. Hart-Button worked with the couple for a decade in Flagstaff.

Being in a single, small herd with the right genetic traits stacked the odds in favor of the unlikely white buffalo births, she said. “It's like winning a lottery ticket 11 times.”

Hart-Button brought the herd to Oregon five years ago after Jim Riley died and a grieving Dena Riley decided to take a break from raising the buffalo.

The idea to have Pendleton Woolen Mills weave the blankets using white buffalo shed hair came from Bend businessman Paul Hait.

The 70-year-old Hait, a 1960 Olympic gold medalist in swimming, persuaded Hart-Button that “the home for these animals should be here in central Oregon,” noting that Madras High School's mascot is a white buffalo.

The Pendleton company hopes to make up to 200 of the blankets in the coming year, company spokesman Robert Christnacht said. “It's a unique story, it's a feel-good story in some ways,” he added.


Information from: The Oregonian,