The bison is an icon of the Great Plains with a history that predates the arrival of humans in North America. Since their arrival, the 10,000-plus year relationship between humans and bison has been tumultuous and grown increasingly complex in modern times following the animal's near extinction coinciding with America's western expansion. The drama and turmoil of this relationship--past and present--is dissected in Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison, a documentary by Doug Hawes-Davis that offers a definitive look at human relations with bison.
"The central driving question of the film is can we allow bison to be bison," he said.
Hawes-Davis has spent years thinking about bison and their old home--the Great Plains of North America. Growing up in Missouri, he became well acquainted with the endless prairies of Kansas and eastern Colorado during family road trips out west. During these long drives, he developed a sense of wonder about what the land was like in the past, long before farms and ranches transformed the landscape. Then, after moving to Montana in the early nineties, Hawes-Davis biked across the plains to Missouri.
"You really get a sense of the place at 15 or 18 miles an hour," he said.
Facing the Storm is rooted in Hawes-Davis's years of thought about bison and the Great Plains. After learning that the animal is not classified as wildlife anywhere in the lower 48 states, he saw a story needing to be told.
"That's a good topic for a film, something worthy of exploration," he said with a laugh.
Facing the Storm presents the dynamic range of human interactions with buffalo over time. For the first 9,500 years, bison and humans coexisted harmoniously, Hawes-Davis said. Although humans were at the top of the food chain, the Great Plains Natives that hunted bison bestowed upon the animal a level of respect that reflected their dependency on bison to survive on the Great Plains.
The Native American's relationship with bison was part of the reason American expansionists had no qualms destroying the animal's population. Hunters and trappers began hunting bison with reckless abandon. With the establishment of railroads on the Plains, people would ride slow moving trains while shooting bison from inside the train cars. In the film, Drew Isenberg, author of The Destruction of the Bison, said that Native resistance to American expansion would decline as bison numbers declined.
"The reason Native Americans ultimately succombed to the Reservation system was not because they were defeated in the field," Isenberg said. "The reason they succombed to the Reservation system was that there simply were no more bison left for them to subsist outside the Reservation system."
Bison were completely eliminated from the Great Plains by 1890. In 1902, the bison population consisted of a herd of 25 animals in Yellowstone National Park.
The bison population crash was a turning point for bison in North America. With white Americans in control of the Great Plains, the relationship with humans and bison was to become vastly more complex than it had ever been while the Native Americans were the dominant population on the plains.
"Their [Native American's] relationship with bison was pretty simple. Mutual respect and the bison provides them with so much of what they needed," Hawes-Davis said. "Today our relationship with bison is a helluva lot more complicated than that."
One complication to this modern relationship is genetic. Many bison herds contain cattle genes, a result of some buffalo having been deliberately cross-bred with cattle when the animal's population was crashing.
Today the herd in Yellowstone remains genetically pure, but these bison are subject to other controversies. Cattle ranchers target Yellowstone bison herds for carrying Brucellosis, a disease that can result in abortions for infected cattle. But, Dan Flores, author of The Natural West says in the film that there is no conclusive evidence that the disease has been transmitted from buffalo to cattle.
Bison migrating out of Yellowstone into Montana is another subject of controversy. During the snowy winter months, Yellowstone bison migrate north into Montana. After leaving their safe haven of Yellowstone, the animals may be pushed back into the park, shot dead by the Montana state government, hunted by citizens or rounded up and sent to slaughterhouses. Montana's motivation for killing bison is to keep Brucellosis out of Montana.
Despite the negative attitudes from ranchers, interest in bison is on the rise. More and more bison are being raised by farmers and ranchers for food. This comes from a growing demand for bison meat as a more healthy alternative to corn-fed cattle. But, the result of such domestication can result in herds that possess different traits than their wild and unmanaged counterparts. How this may affect the species as a whole is not yet known.
"All of this is very complicated," Hawes-Davis said. "We do not have that direct, simple, pure relationship, with bison anymore, so to me that's part of the reason for making the film--trying to help us get a handle on that and try to maybe improve that relationship."
In 1992, Hawes-Davis co-founded his production company, High Plains Films, with Drury Gunn Carr. Since then, they have collaborated on over 30 documentaries about the relationship between humans and the natural world. Other films include El Caballo: The Wild Horses of North America; Varmint, a film about prairie dogs; and This is Nowhere, a film about RV travellers who camp in Wal-Mart parking lots. Hawes-Davis also founded the Big Sky Film Festival, a non-fiction film festival occurring annually in Missoula, Montana.
Currently, Hawes-Davis is working on a documentary called All the Labor, a film about The Gourds, a band that he says is "widely recognized as one of the greatest Americana roots-rock bands out there." They are a "working band" in that they can work full time as musicians but are not rich and famous--they carry their own equipment.
"I've done so much heavy stuff, like Facing the Storm... which I'm really proud of and I hope have had some impact," he said, "but, it's nice to do something where there's not so much pressure to change the world but rather to just celebrate this music."
For more information on Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison visit http://www.highplainsfilms.org/hpf/films/facing_the_storm.
For more information on All the Labor, please visit http://www.highplainsfilms.org/hpf/films/all_the_labor.
Written by Ben Kreimer.
Interviews conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer.