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Ken Burns film shows how bison were nearly driven to extinction – and then saved

Mattia Panciroli
Flickr Creative Commons

News brief: 

This month, award-winning director Ken Burns will release a documentary showing how bison were nearly driven to extinction before an unlikely group of people preserved the species. His two-part series is called “The American Buffalo.”

Burns has called bison the most magnificent species in North America. They numbered in the millions in the early 1800s and were integral to tribal communities, especially on the Great Plains.

“Native peoples were engaged. They saw the buffalo as their kin. As brethren. Not separate from it,” Burns told Wyoming Public Radio. “As opposed to Europeans and Americans, who saw themselves as the masters of the world and therefore detached and unrelated to all the lesser species, and that made it possible for Manifest Destiny.”

In the 19th century, bison were systematically slaughtered by the U.S. Army and bands of hunters. Killing them served growing industries for leather, tongues and other goods. It was also seen as a way for the federal government to starve tribal communities into submission. By the late 1880s, fewer than 1,000 bison remained.

Burns called the near-extinction of bison a “cultural death” for Native Americans.

“You have severed so completely the connection of a people – or a set of people – who have a relationship with this animal,” he said. “And it is a complete severing. They are no more. No one can find them. Only now are we beginning with the rematriation of buffalo back into their tribal homelands or in where their tribes now exist.”

A diverse group of characters banded together to save the species in the late 1800s, which eventually inspired a national conservation movement for it. Hundreds of thousands of bison now roam in commercial, wild and tribally managed herds across the continent.

Burns said an untold “third act” of his film is happening now. But it’s unclear whether humans will be able to restore bison to the wild, open ecosystems that existed prior to white settlement.

“The American Buffalo” premieres on PBS on Oct. 16.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is a contributing journalist and former reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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