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New Ken Burns Film Tackles an American Conservation Failure

When documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and his longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan decided to make a documentary about the American buffalo, they had already done much of the work. The American national mammal features prominently in many of their other films – “Lewis and Clark,” “The National Parks,” “The West.” Dayton still had a copy of a fleshed-out proposal the two men had developed in 1998.

“It’s the most magnificent mammal on our planet, and it intersects with our films about the West,” Burns said in an interview. “We have produced many biographies of individuals. We really thought: wouldn’t it be great to do a biography of an animal? »

The 25 year delay ultimately worked in their favor. The two-part documentary, “The American buffalo,” which will air Monday on PBS, also comes amid a growing movement to return wild bison to the landscape after their near-total annihilation in the late 19th century — the legacy of a federal campaign to eliminate land animals in order to conquer the territory. the Plains tribes who depended on it and to make way for cattle and white settlers.

There are only about 400,000 bison left in North America, most of them raised as livestock.

Between 30 and 60 million wild buffalo roamed North America at the time of European arrival. Today, only about 400,000 remain. Ranches raising buffalo as livestock, often with some level of bovine genetics, make up the overwhelming majority of these. Conservation wild buffalo herds account for about 25,000 of the buffalo remaining on the landscape, less than a tenth of a percent of even the most conservative estimates of their previous numbers.

For anyone trying to make sense of current debates and controversies over wild bison conservation, “The American buffalo » provides an excellent starting point. Based on 18 months of interviews with tribal leaders, conservationists and public intellectuals, the two-part documentary uses the iconic animal’s history to tell the story of the culture clash that decimated the herds wild people and the indigenous people who built their lives around them.

“We all say we’re like the buffalo – they almost wiped us out too,” Mandan-Hidatsa tribesman Gerard Baker says in the film. “Zoos kept buffaloes. The whites kept us on reserve. Same thing.”

It is difficult to imagine the effort required to eliminate such large and resilient herds of buffalo. Even in 1871, when bison slaughter campaigns had already decimated North America’s herds, a train heading to the new town of Dodge City, Kansas, had to stop and wait two hours to let it pass. a three-mile-long herd of bison, the documentary notes. .

The first part of the documentary begins by detailing how buffalo-hunting tribes integrated all aspects of the animal into their daily lives, then begins the story of the animal’s century-long slide toward near-extinction.

Part two traces the history of the conservation movement, led by figures such as naturalist George Bird Grinnell, ranchers Michel Pablo and Charles Allard of the Flathead Reservation, and former President Theodore Roosevelt who saved the species in the 19th century. century.

Although the second part of the story is more uplifting than the first, the story of the American buffalo remains tragic even as the film moves closer to the present day.

A lone bison grazes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
A lone bison grazes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

The conservation effort that gave rise to what is today known as the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation has done a remarkable job of restoring plundered populations of elk, deer, turkeys and other wildlife, while fostering a culture of support for public land ownership and habitat preservation. It is widely considered the leading model for wildlife conservation globally.

Although its early adopters played a key role in keeping a handful of bison alive, wild bison remains one of the greatest failures of the North American model – in part because the federal government has systematically privatized tribal reservation lands, with laws like the Dawes Act of 1887, for the benefit of white settlers and ranchers. Once a keystone species of the plains, the bison is today ecologically extinct.

The documentary ends roughly in 1996, with the founding of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, a tribal-led effort to establish conservation herds on reservations, thereby reestablishing the cultural, spiritual and food connections of the peoples natives with the bison. The organization now has more than 80 members and is now called the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council.

Filmmakers refer to such modern developments, which fall outside the scope of documentary, as the “third act” of history.

“This is the heartbreaking story of a collision between two different views on how human beings should interact with the natural world,” writer Dayton Duncan said in the film. “And there is a tragedy at the very heart of this story. At the same time, as we follow this trail a little further, it can give us hope.

This third metaphorical act is playing out today on several fronts.

Conservation herds on tribal lands are making buffalo a common sight and putting bison meat back on the table after a century of absence. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing whether Yellowstone bison deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act. Private conservation herds like that of the American Prairie Project, a nature preserve, are growing.

And in a bold move, the Blackfeet Nation released four dozen wild buffalo this summer on tribal lands adjoining Glacier National Park, marking the first large-scale release of a wild herd in generations that is almost sure to migrate to federal public lands.

But persistent tensions remain over the future role that the buffalo will play in the landscape. With the exception of the Blackfoot herd and a wild herd in Utah’s Henry Mountains, virtually all wild buffalo today are fenced off to keep them from mixing with livestock, primarily out of fear that the bison would spread a costly disease called brucellosis, which causes spontaneous abortion and low birth weight.

“One of the concerns as we move into the future is creating large ecosystems for bison to live on and whether or not bison will be free-ranging animals,” said historian Roselyn LaPier, who appears in the movie. said at a press conference. “Right now, that’s not the case.”

Although the documentary does not directly address these questions, Burns said he hopes that broadcasting the story can help people understand them in the future.

“A good story can touch everyone,” Burns added. “And that’s what we tried to do.”


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