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 1985.

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

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