The Sagebrush Sea

About

It’s been called The Big Empty – an immense sea of sagebrush that once stretched 500,000 square miles across North America, exasperating thousands of westward-bound travelers as an endless place through which they had to pass to reach their destinations. Yet it’s far from empty, as those who look closely will discover. In this ecosystem anchored by the sage, eagles and antelope, badgers and lizards, rabbits, wrens, owls, prairie dogs, songbirds, hawks and migrating birds of all description make their homes. For one bird, however, it is a year-round home, as it has been for thousands of years. The Greater Sage-Grouse relies on the sage for everything and is found no place else. But their numbers are in decline. Two hundred years ago, there were as many as 16 million sage grouse; today, there may be fewer than 200,000.

The Sagebrush Sea tracks the Greater Sage-Grouse and other wildlife through the seasons as they struggle to survive in this rugged and changing landscape.

In early spring, male sage grouse move to open spaces, gathering in clearings known as leks to establish mating rights. They strut about, puffing up yellow air sacs in their breasts and making a series of popping sounds to intimidate other males. For weeks, they practice their elaborate display and square off with other arriving males, battling to establish dominance and territory. Successful males then display for discriminating females and are allowed to mate only if chosen as the most suitable. The criteria are a mystery to all but the females, nearly all of which select only one or two males on the lek each year. Once they’ve bred, the hens will head off into the protective sage to build their nests near food and water and raise their offspring alone. Within a month, the chicks hatch and follow the hens as they forage for food and keep a watchful eye out for predators. In the summer, the grouse head to wetlands, often populated by farms and ranches, in search of water, only to return to the sage in the fall. Shrinking wetlands that once supported thousands of grouse still manage to provide for hundreds.

Other species discussed in the program include the golden eagle and great-horned owl. Both bird species take advantage of perfect perches on the rocks and ridges sculpted by the area’s constant wind to nest, hunt, and raise their families. Cavity-nesting bluebirds and the American kestrel return each year to raise their young in rock crevices. The sagebrush serves as a nursery for the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher and the Brewer’s sparrow, all of which breed nowhere else.

Sage survives in this arid environment through deep roots that reach to the water below. Like water, however, many key resources are locked below ground in the high desert, bringing an increasing presence of wells, pipelines and housing. As they proliferate, the sage sea is becoming more and more fragmented, impacting habitats and migratory corridors. And of the 500,000 square miles of sagebrush steppe that stretched across North America, only half now remains. For the sage and the grouse, the future is uncertain.

Production Credits Print

THE SAGEBRUSH SEA

DIRECTORS
MARC DANTZKER
TOM SWARTWOUT

PRODUCER
MARC DANTZKER

WRITERS
ALLISON ARGO
MARC DANTZKER

EDITOR
TOM SWARTWOUT

NARRATOR
ALLISON ARGO

CO-PRODUCERS
GERRIT VYN
ALLISON ARGO

CINEMATOGRAPHY
GERRIT VYN
ERIC LINER

ADDITIONAL CINEMATOGRAPHY
NEIL RETTIG
JEFF HOGAN
JOE RIIS
MARC DANTZKER

AERIAL AND MŌVI CINEMATOGRAPHY
SKYSIGHT MOTION CINEMA

TIMELAPSE PHOTOGRAPHY
JOE RIIS
NICOLAUS WEGNER

MUSIC COMPOSER
MATT HUTCHINSON

MUSIC SUPERVISOR
CARY LOGRANDE

SOUND RECORDIST
GERRIT VYN

ADDITIONAL SOUND
THE MACAULAY LIBRARY

PRODUCTION COORDINATOR
KAREN RODRIGUEZ

ASSISTANT EDITOR
ANDREW JOHNSON

PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS
JAMIE DRYSDALE
KARLEEN ROBINSON
NATHANIEL TAYLOR

EAGLE SPECIALISTS
JOE ATKINSON
CORDI ATKINSON

FIELD BIOLOGISTS
JOHN DAHLKE
MATT HOLLORAN
GREGG SHEDD

LOCATION ADVISORS
MARK THONHOFF
DALE WOOLWINE

MAP ANIMATION
PIXELDUST STUDIOS

STOCK FOOTAGE
NATURE FOOTAGE
POND 5
SHUTTERSTOCK

ONLINE EDITOR
JOSEPH BRIDGERS

COLORIST
DAVE MARKUN

SOUND DESIGN AND MIX
DAVE HURLEY
ANDREW BOZZA

LEGAL COUNSEL
STEPHANIE SECHLER

FINANCE
SCOTT MCILVENNIE
NANCY SCHREMPF
KELLY SMITH
KAREN INGALL

SPECIAL THANKS
BARCO RENT-A-TRUCK
DR. BRYAN BEDROSIAN
BETTY BOEHM
THE BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT
STEVE CHINDGREN
TOM CHRISTIANSEN
DEAN CLAUSE
ANNETTE AND IAN CUMMING
STAN HARTER
ALLISON HOLLORAN
TOM KERNER
DR. ALAN KRAKAUER
RON LAIRD
TOM MAECHTLE
DR. GAIL PATRICELLI
DEBORAH RICHIE
BRIAN RUTLEDGE
DR. HALL SAWYER
SEEDSKADEE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
JENNIFER SPEERS
DR. ANDREW SUAREZ
CHEF WENDY SWARTZ
WYOMING GAME & FISH DEPARTMENT

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
JOHN BOWMAN

A CORNELL LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY PRODUCTION

© 2015 CORNELL UNIVERSITY

FOR NATURE

SERIES EDITOR
JANET HESS

SUPERVISING PRODUCER
JANICE YOUNG

SENIOR PRODUCERS
TARA THOMAS
LAURA METZGER LYNCH

ASSOCIATE PRODUCER
JAYNE JUN

LEGAL COUNSEL
BLANCHE ROBERTSON

SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING
COLIN SCHOENBERGER

WEB PRODUCER
ERIC R. OLSON

SENIOR PUBLICIST
JOHANNA BAKER

BUDGET CONTROLLER
KAREN FEIGENBAUM

RE-RECORDING MIXER
ED CAMPBELL

ONLINE EDITOR
STACEY DOUGLASS MOVERLEY

SERIES PRODUCER
BILL MURPHY

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
FRED KAUFMAN

THIS PROGRAM WAS PRODUCED BY THE CORNELL LAB OF ORNITHOLOGY, WHICH IS SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR ITS CONTENT

© 2015 THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED