[IWFF] 'America's Heartland: Wild Prairie Reborn' (2021) Film Review

America's Heartland: Wild Prairie Reborn discusses how the Western grasslands have changed over time and what animals must now do to survive.

[IWFF] 'America's Heartland: Wild Prairie Reborn' (2021) Film Review
America's Heartland: Wild Prairie Reborn (2021), Smithsonian Channel

by Sydney Bollinger

When we think of the American Prairie, we think of this vast expanse, bigger than anything we could imagine. When I drove through Eastern Montana on the way to Georgia, I marveled in what I perceived as stillness. The land went on for miles in every direction for what seemed like forever.

The prairie didn’t go on forever. It couldn’t. I was driving right through the center of it. In Saskatchewan, only 20% of the original native grassland remains.

America’s Heartland: Wild Prairie Reborn (2021), a production of the Smithsonian Channel, brings audiences into the West’s grasslands and describes the impacts colonialism has on the areas. The documentary focuses on several different species and discusses how these species have been impacted by Western “progress” and what they’re doing to adapt to this new environment.

Although the film is traditional in its style — and its style may be familiar to anyone who has watched the Smithsonian’s or any other educational outlet’s documentaries — the breathtaking cinematography and attention to detail make this a unique viewing experience.

The filmmakers connect each part of the prairie to each other, thus traveling through in a way that makes sense for how the different plants and animals are connected. The film starts by discussing some of the native birds in the area, and goes on to feature pronghorn, bison, swift foxes, and grizzly bears. With each of these animals, the documentarians carefully describe the animals’ habitat and how it is affected by the shrinking prairie.

Early on, the documentary centers on the long-billed curlew, a shorebird that calls the prairie home during breeding season. The film puts the viewer in conversations with scientists who are working to track the bird’s movements to support its population. The inclusion of these moments with scientists as they tag and release the birds is very important, especially to understanding the importance of wildlife researchers in restoring prairie habitat.

Wildlife biologists often take center stage in America’s Heartland: Wild Prairie Reborn, but it makes sense that they are the stars. These researchers are the audience’s way into understanding the prairie and the damage caused by over a hundred years of land development in this region.

In addition to its focus on the animals of the prairie, the film also takes a look at land management practices, specifically controlled burns. In many areas the idea of controlled burns (or starting fires in general) is controversial, as the U.S. has long taken a “fire suppression” approach. Like other aspects of the film, the discussion was informative without getting too in the weeds about the science behind it all.

With its beautiful shots of the American prairie, America’s Heartland: Wild Prairie Reborn is a great watch for anyone interested in learning more about the prairie or seeing the efforts of scientists who study the prairie and its wildlife. The documentary is a great primer on the prairie ecosystem; even though I lived near the prairie, I was never fully aware of its intricacy.