Many Westerns, particularly those set in the historical Old West that feature westward expansion of a non-Indigenous population, have explored conflicting uses for the land. There is a long history in the Western genre for that study – from cattle barons and homesteaders squaring off in Shane (1953) to the current AMC series Hell on Wheels (2011 to Present) portraying Indigenous resistance to the railroad’s incursion into their pre-existing traditional lands.

 An undercurrent to the growth of human population in the West has been the effect it has had upon wildlife. Conservative estimates claim the American bison – often called buffalo – to have had a population of approximately 25 million at the time of European arrival on the North American continent in the late 15th century. The North American origins for the modern American bison stretch back some 500,000 years. The bison has been central to Plains tribal cultures and sustenance.

 By the 1870s, however, many US federal officials had begun to encourage white hunters to pursue the wholesale slaughter of bison. The US government approved of the slaughter as it knew that would weaken the resistance of the Plains tribes against moving onto reservations. Pushing the Indigenous peoples onto reservations would open up land for non-Indigenous settlement. In the mid-1870s more than 10 million buffalo were killed – just around 2000 wild bison were left by end of the century.

1870s photo of buffalo skulls to be ground into fertilizer.

The decline of bison herds on the Plains created a vacuum that would be filled by an expanding cattle industry. Cattle would be joined by sheep in the West as a form of livelihood and a way to feed urban citizens who no longer provided their own food. Tied to the economic growth of these industries would be pressure upon the pre-existing wildlife – carnivores such as wolves would be killed off to the point of near extinction in order to protect livestock.

One documentary film currently being screened is examining such practices. Wild Things (2012), produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), looks at how many ranchers are now rejecting the previous method of simply killing off carnivores to instead use both new technology and older methods of animal management to create a situation in which livestock and carnivores can co-exist. One of the underlying arguments for such an approach is that the native-born carnivores bring a balance to the landscape and keep a local ecosystem healthy. Here is a trailer for the film:

For further information on the film and dates for upcoming US screenings, please visit this link: Wild Things

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)

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