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Sage-grouse, Golden Eagles, other birds star in film about America’s sagebrush

Two male Greater Sage-Grouse fight at their territorial boundary on a lek in Wyoming. Photo © Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Do yourself a favor. Set aside an hour on Wednesday, May 20, to watch The Sagebrush Sea, a new film from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when it debuts on PBS.

The film is breathtaking. It chronicles the diversity of life in the western sagebrush steppe, an ecosystem tapped by energy development that faces an uncertain future.

It has 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. In this ecosystem anchored by the sage, eagles and antelope, badgers and lizards, rabbits, wrens, owls, prairie dogs, sparrows, and hawks make their homes.

A male Greater Sage-Grouse returns to an old lek where the howling winds now mingle with the din of machinery from nearby drilling. Photo © Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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 its 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, directed by filmmakers Marc Dantzker and Tom Swartwout, tracks the Greater Sage-Grouse and other wildlife through the seasons as they struggle to survive in the rugged and changing landscape.

The film gives us glimpses into the lives of Burrowing Owls, American Kestrels, Mountain Bluebirds, and Rock Wrens. We see badgers, a short-horned lizard, and a family of Golden Eagles raising a chick.

Eight Burrowing Owl chicks huddle in the warmth of the afternoon sun at the entrance to their repurposed badger hole. Photo © Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

We also see industrial development and suburban homes encroaching on sagebrush. Narrator Allison Argo, an Emmy-award-winning filmmaker, leaves unsaid the political machinations involving sage-grouse over the last few years. She doesn’t mention the federal government’s recent decision not to protect the so-called Bi-State population under the Endangered Species Act or its deadline to announce a listing decision for the full species by September. Nor does she describe the work of 11 western states in recent years, at a reported cost of $424 million, to restore 4.4 million acres of sage-grouse habitat.


Instead, she lets the gorgeous cinematography by Cornell’s Gerrit Vyn, Eric Liner, and others speak for itself. And for the birds.

The program airs Wednesday, May 20 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). After the broadcast, the episode will be available for online streaming at Don’t miss it. — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

The Sagebrush Sea

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Originally Published

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