Late last fall documentary filmmakers Charlie and Shauna Rankin of Meet My Neighbor Productions, traveled to Quitaque Texas to film a genetic treasure roaming in the canyons of Caprock Canyon State Park. The story in Quitaque is part of a larger documentary project called NATIVE | The Prodigies of an Icon about the American bison and its remarkable comeback.
NATIVE | The Prodigies of an Icon will start with a recap of the history of the North American Bison. A story of a species that once roamed the vast landscape of nearly the entire North American continent. While it’s population size varied from indigenous hunting and varying climates since prehistoric times, its ultimate demise came through a series of unfortunate events.
In the 1500’s it is estimated that nearly 60 million bison roamed the North American Landscape. Between the 1500’s and the 1800’s the bison population rapidly dwindled from disease, hunting, and habitat loss to an estimated 325 wild bison in the United States by 1884 (25 in Yellowstone).
As the population of bison was decimated across North America, so too was the ecosystem. Without large populations of ruminants maintaining North America’s grass lands the bread basket of America faced severe desertification which helped cause the dust bowl of the 1930’s. Their disappearance from northeastern woodlands lead to degenerative forests and likely increased plant diseases. The loss of the bison, crippled North Americas ecosystem.
The modern day story of bison began in the 1860’s as conservation efforts to protect the bison began to take root. Idaho passed the first law protecting bison in 1864. In 1866 Charles Goodnight began rounding up bison along the canyons of the Texas Caprock to preserve the species at the request of his wife. Goodnights partner sold the herd and in 1879 Goodnight was able to reestablish a slightly larger herd.
Goodnights efforts began feeding the start of an industry that would eventually play a larger role in bison conservation. In 1885 C.J. Jones purchased bison from Goodnight to start a herd. In 1888 Austin Corbin established a herd in New Hampshire’s Blue Mountain Game Preserve.
By 1899 conservation efforts began with the establishment of the Bronx Zoo herd. In 1901 Congress placed 61,500 acres within the Kiowa, Comanche and Apache Indian Reservation under control of the Department of the Interior establishing the Wichita Forest Reserve. Four years later under Roosevelt the reserve began to reestablish bison from the Bronx Zoo Herd.
In 1902 Bison restoration began in Yellowstone National Park with sources from Colonel Goodnight (3 Bulls) in Texas and the Pablo-Allard (15 Cows) ranch in western Montana.
By 1905 the bison population began to increase. According to William Hornaday there were a total of 1,722 bison in captivity, of which 1,116 were in the United States, 476 in Canada and 130 in Europe, besides about 300 wild bison in Canada and 25 in the United States. Most of these animals are under the control of 45 private owners in the United States.
In 1919 the bison population had regrown to approximately 12,500. In 1936 ABS estimated the population to be approximately 22,000.
Nearly 100 years after the great demise of the bison the North American bison population recovered to approximately 275,000 in 1990 with 250,000 head owned by private ranches and 20 to 25 thousand on conservation land.
Today, 30 years later, that number has more than doubled.
The bison story is one of the largest conservation successes in the world, lead by ranchers, indigenous tribes, and conservationists.
The Goodnight herd which has been used to seed many other conservation and private herds was donated to the State of Texas in 1997. Genetically critical to the survival of the bison, the Texas herd remained protected from the public in an enclosed area of the park until recent years.
"The change here has been transformational it's pretty amazing to see where this project has gone" says Texas Park Ranger Donald Beard.
Meet My Neighbor Productions published a behind the scenes travel "vlog" of filming the bison in Caprock Canyon on the Yanasa TV YouTube channel with excerpts from their interview with Texas Park Ranger Donald Beard.
According to Texas Park Ranger Donald Beard, there were approximately thirty two bison in the herd when the State of Texas took it over. Between 1997 and 2009 the state focused on working out genetics issues with their breeding program. In 2009 when Ranger Beard took over at the park the state began working on the next phase of the project which was fencing in the park and releasing the bison onto the 12,000 acres of Caprock Canyon State Park. The states efforts have increased the herd size to the maximum capacity of the park.
Visitors are able to roam freely with the bison throughout the park.
"It's not an experience that you will find anywhere else in the state of Texas," said Ranger Beard. "We have close calls where people are hiking on a trail and a bison will come out of the woods or the brush and they're right there together. And it depends on how the person reacts and it depends on how the bison reacts as to what is going to happen. 99.999% of the time it ends peacefully and they go there separate ways."
The park has had a few incidents, but they are much rarer than those you hear about in Yellowstone National Park.
NATIVE | The Prodigies of an Icon is a feature documentary film project about North America’s most iconic mammal, the American Bison (aka Buffalo). The film features ranchers and indigenous producers across North America and Native American Territories.
The documentary aims to highlight the history of bison and its relationship with mankind, the regenerative significance bison has on our ecology, and the industry that has made its comeback both possible and economically sustainable in a modern world.
Together bison ranchers, conservationists, and indigenous people are running one of the largest conservation programs in the world. They have reestablished a species from the brink of extinction while restoring, managing, and protecting grasslands that are essential to our ecosystem all while developing an industry that is contributing to everything from food security to clothing.
The objective of the project is to create a documentary and social movement that encourages viewers to support the bison community through their purchasing and donation decisions and to ultimately help them recognize the role that they can play in repopulating and maintain this incredible keystone species in a modern world. Connecting the benefits of bison to the ecology is an essential part of the documentary. To illustrate the bison’s environmental impact and accessibility across the continent the film will provide viewers with local and regional resources.
"Over the years, documentaries have often fallen victim to special interest narratives. It’s our prerogative to document and share the whole of the truth of todays bison story," said Charlie Rankin Co-Producer and Creative Director.
"As our team has ventured down the road of documenting the bison’s story, we’ve discovered another almost mystic hallmark of this extraordinary species. Beyond its naturally regenerative influence on our ecosystem, or its remarkable story of survival against our best efforts to eliminate it. The bison has managed to unite people of varying political, ethnic, and extreme culturally diverse backgrounds into a single cause even during disruptive social, political, and economic times," Charlie explained.
What started as an idea birthing from our their own admiration for this mammal, has evolved into a story of healing of our land, people, and nations.
NATIVE | The Prodigies of an Icon is a documentary completely narrated and funded by the bison community, its supporters, and public donations. This entire project is being made possible by people like you, industry peers, and bison enthusiasts.
The National Buffalo Foundation provided the film makers with a grant in 2021. Other film supporters include Sierra Meat & Seafood of Nevada, Durham Ranch of Wyoming, Great Range Premium Bison of Colorado, Tender Bison of North Dakota, Mosquito Park Enterprises of South Dakota, The Buffalo Wool Company of Texas, Bigelow Fields Bison and Breadhouse of Maine, Herd Wear of Texas, and the National Bison Association.
"Admittedly we did not know how we would come up with the funds to film the bison across the entire North American continent when the project started. Shauna and I simply jumped in our car with a pop-up camper in tow and started filming, the story grew from there. We still have a long way to go in 2023, but are extremely grateful for the wide range of supporters the film has attracted. This is an important story that embraces the unity between ranchers, indigenous people, and conservationists. It's that unity that has made the bison a success story and not an extinction story," said Charlie Rankin.
The Texas state bison herd was recently featured in Ben Masters Deep In The Heart a documentary about Texas wildlife narrated by Matthew McConaughey. The herd is also featured in Ken Burns' upcoming documentary The American Buffalo, expected to release in 2023 which tells the story of the demise of the American bison. NATIVE | The Prodigies of an Icon picks up the story from there and brings the bison back to a modern world.
"Bison are remarkable, they have survived near extinction on several occasions and have been able to find a place in our modern world," said Charlie.