Where the Buffalo Still Roam: ‘Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild’

The Great Plains looms large in the American imagination, whether as a backdrop for innumerable cowboy dramas or, for ecology mavens, a landscape haunted by ghosts of massive bison herds that shook the ground at the time of the Louisiana Purchase. This vast, grass-blanketed region – spanning perhaps one million square miles, although disagreements over geographic size date back two centuries – encompasses several states, and even protrudes well into Canada.

In photographer Michael Forsberg’s recent documentary Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, he and his director Michael Farrell attempt to demystify the Plains by taking an honest look at contemporary lives and how history has shaped the present. Forsberg states, “Pretty pictures can be a trap”, a tad ironic given the stark beauty of hisNational Geographic-quality photos, especially one that opens the film; a burrowing owl stares defiantly into the lens, his wings outstretched, his feet performing a hostile dance.

Forsberg has worked in the Plains for at least a quarter century, so one can assume he knows the terrain. He and Farrell have divided their film into two sections, the first titled “A Long, Hard Struggle”. Not surprisingly, the Great Plains, bordered by the Rockies to the West and “Old Man” Mississippi on the eastern side, hosted a great abundance of wildlife at the time the Corps of Discovery passed through, most notably tens of millions of the fabled buffalo.

The filmmakers begin their journey in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley, then traverse a meandering route through North Dakota, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Wyoming, and South Dakota, although this video ‘tour’ is by no means comprehensive. In North Dakota’s Prairie Pothole Region, the land is pockmarked by “pothole” wetlands created millennia ago by receding glaciers, but the windy climate of Texas’ Llano Estacado jogged my personal memory of driving I-40 through the Panhandle back in 2005, the wind making it necessary to close all windows in my little Sentra.

In New Mexico’s Weaver Ranch, the predominant avian species is the prairie chicken, but as one might expect, habitat shrinkage has culled their population significantly; as recently as the ’70s, the feisty bird was thick on the ground. And they’re hardly the only indigenous creature to have suffered. The nervous prairie dog is a keystone species in South Dakota’s Buffalo Gap National Grassland, but it’s been decimated by plague, which invaded S. Dakota in 2004. Of course, the weasel-like Black-footed ferret preys largely on prairie dogs, so it’s now vulnerable as well.

Great Plains, inadvertently or not, functions as a travelogue, and I was enchanted by Kansas’ Flint Hills, an Edenic, riverine ecotopia just two hours west of Kansas City. It’s home to flourishing buffalo herds, lush, verdant hillsides, and Miller Spring, an artesian stream which has burbled for thousands of years. Is it any wonder that local residents are battling dam proposals?

However, before one gets too misty-eyed, we should remember that the Plains – as a whole – has been transformed into a working landscape, and this process began with the arrival of European settlers not long before the Industrial Revolution. Nowadays, many of those residing in this sparsely-populated region must contend with dams (Wyoming’s Powder River is the last undammed river in the American West), wind farms – an apparent danger to bat colonies, and mechanized extraction of vital materials, especially in resource-rich Wyoming.

The second half of the film, “We Live With The Land”, delves deeper into the respective fates of the area’s wildlife. Amid the dramatic and unpredictable weather of Montana’s “Missouri Breaks”, Forsberg snaps several pics of the majestic bald eagle, not to mention a lone bobcat, its expression wavering between curiosity and challenge. In the nearby Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, we witness elk mating rituals, probably a first for most viewers, although I’ve seen America’s second-largest deer from the windows of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief and at the Virginia Safari Park.

More commonly spotted on rail journeys through the American West is the swift pronghorn, a distant relation to Old World antelopes capable of running 60mph when necessary. Such speed doesn’t doesn’t help them, however, during their 500-mile round-trip migrations, when cattle fencing blocks their path. A prairie chicken carcass illustrates the sorry fate of flight-challenged birds who are unable to hop these man-made barriers.

Which brings us back to Bison bison, better known as the American bison, American buffalo, or the colorful sobriquet “Thunderbeast”. On South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Ranch, this monarch of the Plains is being re-established, more than a century after its near-annihilation during the “Indian Wars” of 1830-90. Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the frontier closed at the end of the 19th century, and for the bison, it very nearly was. At the Cheyenne River Ranch, a group called the Harvesting Alliance manages growing herds, culling adult males periodically, then selling the organic meat for human consumption. Bison burgers are now widely available in many parts of the US, and it’s notably healthier than factory-reared beef.

It’s mentioned in Great Plains that much of the region rests in private hands, and maybe this rankles a bit, given societal concerns about the one percent hogging the table, but it’s also true that many landowners in the region are devoted to preservation, both of flora and fauna, some of which are unique to the Plains. We’re informed that outside of the Platter River Prairies, precious little tall grass prairie remains in the state, and Iowa’s Broken Kettle Preserve is a haven for the less than one percent remaining of Iowa’s native prairie.

In fact, environmental scholar Frank J. Popper has argued for the establishment of a “Buffalo Commons”, covering 139,000 square miles of the most arid portions, which he claims is superfluous for human habitation, based on population figures, or unsuitably arable. The devastation wrought by drought and heedless plowing in the 1930s during the “Dust Bowl” would seem to lend credence to his argument. Similarly, the Montana-based advocacy organization The American Prairie Reserve has proposed setting aside a territory of three million acres as a sort of ‘American Serengeti’, inspired by the renowned East African game park. A curious omission that neither of these ideas are mentioned in this film.

Any regular viewer of PBS nature programming may not find a lot of new information in Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, but Forsberg’s evocative photographs are a pleasing visual exclamation point to the workaday video footage, and armchair travelers like myself may discover a sudden urge to hit the highway, map and compass…er, GPS in hand.

RATING 6 / 10