Doug Hawes-Davis’ documentary traces the long and tumultuous history of the American bison over a 10,000-year stretch. Admittedly, the last 200-year period was the most perilous for the species, when it was the target of reckless over-hunting by the white settlers who took over the continent. It was only through an unprecedented push for wildlife conservation that the American bison survived, though it remains at the center of a seemingly endless tug-of-war between environmentalists, developers, native tribes and sports hunters.
The film is rich with beautiful cinematography that captures the species in the wild, and it also offers an impressive collection of rare photographs and film footage that shows the near-fatal decline of the bison and its escape from extinction. Not surprisingly, a great deal of footage is devoted to the bison’s role in American Indian culture. However, the film also details an aspect of the subject that rarely gets raised outside of Montana: the vast majority of bison today are farm-raised to be slaughtered for their meat. The few remaining wild herds are segregated to the Yellowstone National Park domain, where they are prevented from returning to their migration paths because of concerns from local ranchers that the herds would damage their land.
Hawes-Davis’ film serves as a wonderful introduction to anyone who is unfamiliar with this aspect of the American ecosystem and with the harsh history of late 19th and early 20th century United States.