• david61935

First Shots

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Reflections on our first day in the field and our mission to amplify #Native voices and the story of the bison.

One of the female bison we saw on our first morning in the field. May 5, 2018. Hebgen Basin. Photo: #ShonBollock.

Our first day filming in West Yellowstone we spotted three dozen buffalo near Dark Horse Road. We’d left camp just minutes earlier and finding them so quickly felt unexpected. A good sign.

We pulled over to set up cameras and sound gear, wondering how close we might get. It was still morning and the early May light reflected off Lake Hebgen, which was still half-frozen. Across the water, the snowy north-facing slopes of Coffin Ridge rose steeply, somewhat intimidatingly, framing the whole basin — the lake, the buffalo, and our tiny little crew — as if we were in a giant amphitheater.

Meanwhile the herd kept grazing. If you haven't been out on the landscape with bison before, of course that's how you see them at first: a collective herd. But even after just a few minutes of observation, you start to see how the herd is an intricately connected and interdependent set of family groups.

This was one of the first warm weeks after a cold Montana winter and among the herd were many pregnant females. There was also a beautiful ochre-colored calf — perhaps a day old — who stayed close to her mother as they walked near the road. All the while the herd continued moving, crossing sage meadows and ponderosa forests, always staying together, always moving steadily, the bulls out front but never getting too far ahead.

Female bison with calf. May, 2018. Hebgen Basin. Photo: #DavidMiller.

Being in the presence of wild bison is hard to describe. Bison (or “buffalo”) are the largest land mammals in the Americas, weighing up to 2,000 pounds, with massive heads evolved to work like snow shovels for grazing in the deep winters of the Great Plains. And yet they move with astonishing lightness and agility, capable of running 35 mph (as fast as horses) and jumping over 6-foot fences. Like hawks or coyotes, everything about them exudes an indomitable wildness, and yet, being huge and very social ungulates who form massive herds, their presence affects you in a different way. To see them roam is to see migratory routes that go back tens of thousands of generations into prehistory.

I loved seeing how they crossed roads and driveways and ranches, aware of this human infrastructure but seeming to ignore it, moving carefully, selectively, following their instincts. To truly see this resets the way you see the landscape. It’s like being a child and waking up for the first time after a snowfall. You catch a glimpse of a world where boundaries have been erased.

And yet, we wondered, how far would this small herd get this season? Would they make it to Yellowstone National Park, where they are given federal protection? Or would they be chased, harassed, or even captured and sent to slaughter by Montana Department of Livestock officials?

Bison calf, Hebgen Basin. Photo: #ShonBollock.

Our mission to come here and film was motivated two things. First, we wanted to learn for ourselves and to spread awareness about one of the most egregious wildlife management policies in the country. Few people know about the Interagency Bison Management Plan. And yet this decades-old legislation which transferred wild bison management from the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to the Montana Department of Livestock, has resulted in the senseless slaughter of thousands of wild bison over the last 20+ years.

Over the next several days, our investigations included interviews with Yellowstone’s chief wildlife biologist and extensive patrols in the field with volunteers from the Buffalo Field Campaign (BFC). One of the longest-running frontline environmental activist groups in the US, the BFC has monitored and documented the treatment of wild bison in the field for more than two decades, originally bringing this issue to public attention.

Black Eagle, Nez Perce Chief and ancestor of James Holt, key subject in Last Wild Bison. Circa 1900.

Our second motivation was to confront the historical genocide of both bison and Native peoples, and to amplify Native voices in shaping this narrative. With important historical photographs as well as archival footage of the late Rosalie Little-Thunder (Lakota elder and BFC Co-Founder), plus in depth conversations with other Native elders, our film highlights the need for truth and reconciliation that underpin the work we have to do in order to heal as a nation.

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By late morning the bison calf and mother were resting in the shade of a ponderosa. We stood nearby, still filming. As I held the microphone, occasionally leaning over to look through the monitor at how we’d framed the shot, I wondered how these first scenes would come out. Would viewers be able to sense what was so evident there on the prairie — that sense of togetherness that the herd embodied?

Even just being there on the landscape with them felt healing somehow. They were aware of us — these strange gringos with their recording equipment — and yet they weren’t bothered by us at all.

They freely and openly shared their story.