Yosemite and Climate Change with Wildlife Filmmaker Joe Pontecorvo

In the latest episode of the InsideNATURE podcast, I spoke with filmmaker Joe Pontecorvo, producer of the recent NATURE film Yosemite. As the name suggests, Joe’s film is about Yosemite National Park, one of America’s oldest parks, nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. The film features a diverse cast of animal characters including rabbit-like pikas, big horn sheep and peregrine falcons, as well as giant sequoias, the largest trees in the world. Filmed during the end of a historic drought which killed 100 million trees across California, Yosemite looks at how global climate change might affect the many species that call the park home.

Listen to the podcast above or read the edited transcript:

NATURE :  You’ve produced a number of films for NATURE now including the mini-series Bears of the Last Frontier, Snow Monkeys, The Last Orangutan Eden, and now Yosemite. How did that relationship with NATURE develop and how did you get into wildlife filmmaking in the first place?

Joe Pontecorvo: Well, I got into wildlife filmmaking in kind of an odd way. I was actually doing commercial work and I’ve always loved the outdoors, I always wanted to be out there, but in the Pacific Northwest where I’m from it’s mostly salmon and ancient forest and we don’t have a lot of sexy megafauna that would get me out there filming wildlife. I actually met some folks from the Hornocker Wildlife Institute and they said, “Hey look, we’ve got this Siberian tiger project and we’d like to know if you’d be interested in working with us to produce a film.” Initially it was going to be a film for the project itself and it ended up turning out to be an hour film that aired on Discovery Channel. Bears of the Last Frontier was really the first series that we did with NATURE. We were at the Montana Wildlife Film Festival and Chris Morgan was up on stage talking and we started a conversation. And then at that point we started talking about what can we do with bears, so that’s how Bears of the Last Frontier came to be.

NATURE :  Yosemite is beautifully filmed and really captures the magnificence of the park. There were a number of shots that really left me wondering, “how did he get that shot”? For example, where you’re filming the geologists who are dangling by ropes off the face of El Capitan or the botanist climbing up the giant sequoia trees. How did you get those death-defying shots?

Part of the film had this kind of adventure sports aspect of it and we wanted to show Yosemite is different than Yellowstone. Yellowstone is about North America’s megafauna, but Yosemite is really about how people interact with the natural world and it’s a rock climbing mecca. You couldn’t make a film about Yosemite without going on El Cap. Usually my wife and I, we’re the crew. Basically, we’re it. But in this case we had to have an expert rock climber and cinematographer, so we got Jonathan Byers on board and he did a lot of the most technical aspects of the climbing. But then I of course wanted to micromanage the whole thing, so I also went up an easier route through the East ledges, got to the top of El Cap, and then did a pitch down 3,000 feet filming and swinging out  to show them sitting in their portaledge.

By the end of the film, I had done an enormous amount of climbing. We climbed giant sequoias to film Anthony Ambrose and his team taking measurements of the health of the giant sequoias and I have to say that climbing the giant sequoias more than anything else, that was the most awe-inspiring experience because you’re climbing a living organism. It’s like a city in there. When you’re in the canopy, the limbs are like eight feet in diameter and you’re walking out on them and you can feel the whole thing swaying and you can feel that it’s alive. You are climbing through this living organism and at the same time you’re climbing through time because at the base of tree, you’re talking about something maybe 3,000 years old and the top of the tree you’re talking about vegetation that might have grown yesterday. It’s like this time-travel experience that you get while you’re climbing the sequoia. It’s remarkable.

NATURE :  And that’s the only place in the world that has those types of trees, right?

Yes.  There’s very few of them left. They are endangered and there’s small groves scattered through the Sierras and these groves are holding the world’s largest living tree. It’s impressive. I mean, I think California is full of superlatives, right? It’s got the world’s largest tree, it has the world’s tallest tree, the redwoods. It’s got, one of the most iconic monoliths in the world, El Capitan. California is like that.

NATURE:  It must have been amazing for the explorers that initially came across the giant sequoias, going “Oh my god, this is insane.”

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to enter Yosemite Valley for the first time, to come in there and see this incredible geology. That must have taken their breath away and then as they got closer and closer realizing just how massive it was.  Yosemite’s kind of a place that makes you feel really small and I think whether it’s at the base of a giant sequoia or the base of El Cap, you have that feeling constantly when you’re there. You feel like kind of an ant in this much larger world.

NATURE :  I’m sure a lot of people who have watched the film will feel like they need to visit now.

I think that’s really the motivation behind the film. I really want people to get excited about going out there and participating in nature. I think the more time you spend in the natural world, it’s like spending time with people, the more empathy you develop and the more you care about it. Until you make that connection it’s just an abstract photograph or idea and I think a lot of natural history films are inspiring you to go out there and make contact.

NATURE : I understand filming the bighorn sheep who live on these very sheer, crumbly rock cliffs was especially challenging. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?

Sierra bighorn sheep only live in the California Sierra Nevada and right now there’s only 600 animals in the entire range, so you’re talking about 600 animals across 400 square miles. It’s a massive area and one of the biggest challenges was just finding them. We did have help from California Fish and Wildlife and they have some sheep with radio collars, but even so they’re incredibly shy so they’re very hard to get close to and difficult to find. It’s not like being in a place like Yellowstone where you can just kind of walk up and film. That was a real challenge and you could go days and days without finding them and even if you did, trying to get close enough to film them was really challenging.

There was probably one time we were out there, we hadn’t seen any sheep in days. We had planned this trip to only be so many days out there, but we extended it because we weren’t having any luck, but we  didn’t bring enough food to last us the entire duration, so we ended up trying to make stew out of bits of beef jerky. We had these dehydrated peas and beef jerky. That was what we were down to. That was our entire food supply and so we tried to come up with a stew. I’m here to testify that it’s possible. Of course, as you might expect, all it took was one more day and then “bam”, they show up and there’s this incredible event unfolding in front of us and we were able to capture it.

NATURE :  Your film seems to be about two things. It’s kind of a visual love letter to Yosemite and also a warning shot about the threats to Yosemite presented by climate change. How did you weave those two themes together and were there any challenges in doing that?

Yes. A lot of challenges in doing that. We had a number of things going on in the film. One is we had this sort of sports adventure aspect to try to capture the feeling of Yosemite, the way people interact with that part, with the Sierras. At the same time we began in the middle of a drought and so we couldn’t ignore probably the most important aspect of Yosemite which was water. We wanted to look at the natural world through the lens of water. Yosemite is famous for its countless waterfalls and also the snow pack in the Sierra provides 30 to 40 percent of California’s water and 60 percent of California’s water comes from the Sierra Nevada in total, from all of the precipitation and snow combined.

It’s clearly a really important component of the ecosystem and even though droughts are are a natural part of the cycle, it was the temperatures that really pushed this drought over the edge. And things happened that had never happened before, for example, over 100 million trees died across California, a lot of them in the Sierras. That’s really unprecedented.  They’re really entering uncharted territory at that point and I think it’s easy with all the rain and snow that California’s been getting, to think, “Oh, well, the drought’s over. Everything’s fine. Let’s go back to business as usual.” But this is all part of this larger climate change picture. You really can’t look at climate change on a season-by-season basis. You have to really be thinking about it over the long term.

NATURE :  So this extended drought in California that basically went from 2011 to 2017, perhaps gave us a  glimpse of what might happen if the climate continues warm?

Yeah, the film was really using this drought as sort of the snapshot into the future, and that’s really the way that a lot of the ecologists that I worked with also were viewing this drought. They were both heartbroken because they love forests and devastated by what happened, but excited because they got this glimpse of this is what may be coming down the road and we really need to know what’s happening so we can start thinking about management differently.

One of the things we were really trying to explore in the film was the impact of this drought and how the composition of this forest might be changing over time.  100 million trees aren’t coming back from the dead. They’re gone, so the question is what will replace them? More drought-tolerant species? What will those be? And then we also looked at another aspect: which places could serve as refugia, places for species to hold out in a warming world. If  the climate is going to keep warming, if snow pack is going to continue to decline, are there going to be places that are going to be more resilient than others? If that’s true, should we be focusing our efforts to make sure we can preserve those locations?

Giant sequoia forests turns out to be one of those places. They seems to have this rather consistent water supply that we don’t quite understand yet and the giant sequoias as well as all the other trees that were in that grove seemed to survive the drought and even thrive, while just outside the grove, those same trees, forest pines and cedars, were dying at alarming rates. But then inside the grove, forest pines and cedars were healthy. That indicates that there may be something going on hydrologically under the soil.

So I think that the film really serves as not only an introduction to Yosemite and Sequoia National Park, but by using water as a lens in which we look at the natural world, we’re able to talk about how that ecosystem may be changing over time and as temperatures rise and as the climate begins to shift and as Yosemite changes from this sort of snow-based ecosystem to a rain-based ecosystem, how is that going to change the composition of not only the forest but the species that live there? How ultimately will having longer, dryer summers impact wildlife there? There are a lot of questions on the table and as one pika expert told me, the reason we don’t have the answer to these questions is that we just haven’t been asking them long enough to find them.