91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“Film Reviews: Critter Crises”
Montana Magazine, July/August 2004
by Les Benedict

Conflicted critters of the American West are portrayed in a quartet of recent award-winning and thought provoking films. Three of these pieces, VARMINTS, KIILLING COYOTE, and EL CABALLO are from talented journalist/documentarian Doug Hawes-Davis of Missoula. The fourth, THE BUFFALO WAR, is specifically about a Montana problem.

VARMINTS looks at the West’s best known rodent, the black-tailed prairie dog. Landowners and stock growers try to eradicate it, while environmentalists believe the lowly prairie dog is an important part of the prairie ecosystem. The “Varmint Militia,” enthusiastic hunters with high-powered rifles, simply like to “Explode them dogs!” In a deceptively simple, often darkly comic style, Hawes-Davis lets his diverse group of interviewees have their say-sometimes to their detriment. Varmints includes rare historic footage of poisoning efforts by government agencies, and effectively captures the anger, ignorance, and passion surrounding the debate. Varmints was filmed in Montana, Wyoming, and Utah.

KILLING COYOTE opens with a coyote-killing contest in Rawlins, Wyoming, and goes on to film biologists, ranchers, animal rights activists, and various government agents in their struggle for, or against, the “wild dog of the west.” Equally as hard-hitting as VARMINTS, this film’s amazing footage shows the coyote in a number of graphic situations, including taking down a sheep and being caught in a leg-hold trap. Perhaps most disturbing is the insight into the work of the Animal Control Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. KILLING COYOTE was filmed in several Western states, including Montana.

EL CABALLO is Hawes-Davis’ more benign treatment of the wild horse controversy. Fossil evidence clearly indicates the horse developed in America some 55 million years ago, then mysteriously disappeared until reintroduced here by the Spanish in the 1600’s. Now there is disagreement over how the feral descendents of these early herds should be treated. Are they “exotics” with no historic claim to their niche, or are they natives? Should they be given more government protection than they now receive, or rounded up and sold for dog food? There are provocative arguments on both sides. El Caballo was shot in various Western locations, including the Pryor Mountains south of Billings.

THE BUFFALO WAR, directed by Matthew Testa, examines the yearly slaughter of wild bison that stray from the Yellowstone National Park each winter. Of several films on this subject, The Buffalo War is arguably the best to date. Extremely well photographed, it gives equal weight to all the concerned voices: ranchers who fear the brucellosis disease bison may carry, environmental activists who practice civil disobedience, hunters who draw lottery tickets, and, particular to this film, a group of Native Americans who make a 500-mile march to express their spiritual connection to the bison. THE BUFFALO WAR was filmed near Gardiner.

Les Benedict eared a degree in film from Montana State University-Bozeman. He wrote, directed, photographed, and edited educational films, documentaries, and TV commercials for fifteen years in the U.S. and in Africa. He has taught media production at Montana State University-Bozeman and at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena, where he has been the film programmer since 1985.