For the curious traveler of Virginia’s
back roads, there’s a buffalo farm not too far from the sleepy
town of Riner, Virginia, only a few miles away from the Blue
Ridge Parkway. The buffalo farm isn’t much different than a
number of dairy farms in the area. The only real difference
is that there’s been no attempt to rid the grazing land of clumps
of brush and trees. In fact, the buffalo seem to like climbing
up and down the steep incline that leads to a small stream.
This side trip can even take on an air of spirituality, because
seeing buffalo, especially in the East, is so rare that one
is more likely to have seen one on an old nickel. Here, after
all, is a small herd of buffalo thriving, despite everything
the federal government did to commit genocide on the species.
But the good vibe pretty much vanishes when one realizes that
the owners also run a small restaurant in Riner. There, the
curious tourist can experience the great American symbol up
close—by eating him.
This side trip to Riner will
also bring out another curious historical fact. Almost everyone
is familiar with the fact that the federal government, in order
to eradicate the Native-American food supply, decimated 60-80
million buffalo in the 19th century. Few realize,
however, that bison existed east of the Mississippi in early
American History. These creatures traveled in smaller groups,
wondering the hills and hollows of Virginia and North Carolina,
until target practice and Westward expansion wiped them out.
With a little imagination one realizes that two hundred and
fifty years ago buffalo were plodding up and down the same hill
to drink from the same stream in Riner, Virginia.
Enter the buffalo at Yellowstone
National Park, the last wild herd in America. "Wild"
means the herd migrates and grazes pretty much as it would have
before the settling of the West by Europeans. Unfortunately,
this wild herd continues to be in conflict—much like its ancestors—with
other interests. During winter, when the snow becomes deep,
the buffalo leave the confines of Yellowstone to find more food.
While the buffalo remain on public land, it is land that is
also used by ranchers to graze cattle. The major problem is
a bacterial disease called brucellosis that causes infected
cattle to abort their fetuses. Federal and state governments
have struggled for years to eradicate the disease from cattle,
and it still occasionally crops up. When it does, the cattle
are destroyed. Half of the Yellowstone buffalo have brucellosis,
and Montana fears that they will pass the disease to cattle.
Even though there have been no documented transmissions of the
disease in the area, 3000 buffalo have been destroyed since
The Buffalo War identifies
every party involved in the battle over the fate of the last
wild heard. There are the counter-culture protesters who think
up creative ways to strap themselves in tripods in order to
block construction of new testing areas. Local Native Americans
opt out of politics to take a 500-mile trek across cold, barren
Montana to find spirituality and promote understanding of the
sacred and mistreated bison. A number of state and federal officials
chime in, for and against killing the buffalo, and all come
across as reasonable. And there’s the local farmers who are
just doing what their fathers were doing and hope that their
kids will want to do the same thing. Clearly these groups were
never destined to eat dinner at the same table.
Probably the most interesting
group is the longhaired protesters who come up with all kinds
of crazy ways to keep the various officials from doing their
jobs. They chain themselves to the middle of bridges so vehicles
cannot pass and they make lots of noise by banging things together
to divert cattle away from testing pens. The only thing the
officials disdain more than these "tree huggers" are
the cameras they carry everywhere they go. The camera, nonetheless,
seems to have a soothing effect on the officials’ actions. A
cynic will perhaps have to be forgiven for finding a certain
emptiness in the Native Americans’ 500-mile journey to bring
attention to the plight of the buffalo. How many bison will
their journey preserve? How much political pressure will this
symbolic trek bring to Montana’s governor? But the Native Americans
do bring poignancy to the fact that the government’s ongoing
policy, when it comes to Native Americans and Native-American
issues, really hasn’t changed much in the last 400 years. Oddly,
the ranchers come across as perhaps the most "normal"—from
a middle-class point of view—of all these groups. They have
family picnics and sound fairly reasonable when someone sticks
a camera in their face. The farmers aren’t too crazy about killing
the buffalo either, though they would like the buffalo to quit
tearing up the fences and eating the cattle’s grass.
One needn’t be a softhearted
liberal to feel unsettled by images of state officials shooting
and killing buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, nor an expert
on American history to find these events disturbingly familiar.
Watching The Buffalo War makes it clear that the real
issue has little to do with brucellosis, but is actually a turf
war over who gets to use public land. There are a number of
possible compromises—immunizing the cattle and letting the cattle
and bison use the land at different times of the year—but neither
Montana nor its farmers are interested. The farmers have leased
the federal land that boarders Yellowstone since way back …
and seem to believe they were there before the buffalo. In Jackson
Hole, Wyoming, in a similar situation, bison and cattle happily
occupy the same land. On a practical level, the money the ranchers
are paying to lease public lands will never cover the cost of
public monies used to capture, test, and destroy the bison.
In fact, it would be cheaper for the state to buy the farmer’s
land. It also seems odd that Montana politicians didn’t realize
that slaughtering buffalo—1,100 in the winter of ’96-’97—might
be unpopular and thus, unwise. All of this leaves the viewer
with the impression that state officials have grown obstinate
due to opposition.
The Buffalo War provides
an informative and moving snapshot of an ongoing controversy
and does so fairly. The viewer, nonetheless, will recognize
this as a situation in which one must take sides. It may also
occur to the viewer that if this year’s winter is harsh, there
will be more killings, and that no limit has been set on the
number of buffalo that can be slaughtered. While the film is
likely to draw more protests against the slaughter, lawsuits
and government policy seldom move quickly. The one effective
weapon has been unwanted media attention, which has helped to
slow down the state’s handy work. The Buffalo War’s appearance
on Public Television promises to give the issue even wider exposure,
throwing one more cog into Montana’s ongoing battle against
the last American bison herd.
Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
The Buffalo War will air
nationally on PBS on November 1st at 10:00 p.m. Check
local listings at www.pbs.org.
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