On the sweeping plains of the sagebrush steppe known as "the Big Empty" lives the greater sage-grouse, a bird immediately recognizable for the strange and beautiful mating call the male performs for females each year. The sage-grouse isn't alone on this seemingly desolate sea of brush; it is an ecosystem teaming with biodiversity, and with a greater frequency, also energy company operations.

Over the past three years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Multimedia Production team has spent time in the area filming a documentary about this iconic location and what has become the poster species for conservation here. The team writes, "[I]n the shadow of energy development, these lucrative basins are contested territory. Here, sage-grouse are sensitive barometers for environmental change, and their populations have declined by at least 90% since European settlement. The sagebrush landscape is changing, and some timeless elements of its sense of place — the cascading songs of sage thrashers, the otherworldly booming of strutting grouse, the widely-spaced tracks of a Pronghorn’s sprint — are at risk of fading away."

The documentary airs May 20 on PBS Nature and takes a closer look at energy companies on the steppe, the impact of development, and the steps the state has taken to put conservation measures in place. "Historically low populations of sage-grouse made the bird a prime candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, which would in turn endanger energy development in Wyoming," writes the team. "So the state proactively issued its own plan for protecting core habitat for greater sage-grouse, in hopes of staving off a federal intervention. It is a conservation plan that has driven a wedge between conservationists. Some say the core plan is a big win, a turning point for a species in a decades-long decline. Others say the plan is weak, doesn’t do nearly enough for sage-grouse, and will not stop the decline."

We spoke with the principal cinematographer for the documentary, conservation photographer Gerrit Vyn, about what it was like filming this species, and what future this and other species in the ecosystem face.

sagebrush sea

By turns known as the Big Empty, the Place in Between, flyover country and other nicknames focused on its sweeping nothingness, the sagebrush steppe is anything but empty. It is in actuality a flourishing ecosystem. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab)

MNN: As a conservation photographer, what turned your interest to the sagebrush steppe?

Gerrit Vyn: I have been fascinated in and photographing our various prairie and sage-grouse species for many years now and for our two sage-grouse species we are really at a crossroads for both their conservation and the conservation of the sagebrush-steppe habitats they occupy. The Gunnison sage-grouse was listed as a threatened species in 2014 and a decision whether to list the much wider ranging greater sage-grouse is due out this fall. This decision will have major implications for land use across many areas of the West. Along with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we wanted to raise people’s appreciation for both these remarkable birds and these landscapes that people often describe as empty or barren when in fact they are full of life. It is important for people to understand what is really at stake in some of these places, especially those that are on public lands rich with natural gas.

sage-grouse male displaying

Sage-grouse males inflate air sacs on their chest, which are puffed out in an impressive and unusual display meant to win the favor of females. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab)

What makes the sage-grouse key players in the conservation and health of the sagebrush steppe habitat? 

Sage-grouse are hyper-sensitive to environmental changes and as such are key indicators of overall ecosystem health. They are also in trouble — greater sage-grouse numbers were estimated at 16 million pre-settlement. Today, there are less then half a million individuals left. The primary reason for these precipitous declines has been the conversion, fragmentation and degradation of our native sagebrush-steppe for food production, grazing, and more recently energy development.

It is a pattern we have seen before with prairies and prairie-chickens. The greater prairie chicken, symbol of our tall grass prairies, once occurred in at least 33 states but is now restricted to seven widely fragmented populations in seven states. We don’t want to see that happen with sage-grouse or our sagebrush-steppe, one of our country’s most romanticized and enduring landscapes.

The stark population declines of our two sage-grouse species have alerted us to the failing health and character of these lands. They are in danger of being degraded by human uses to a point where they can no longer sustain the unique wildlife species that have occupied them for hundreds of thousands of years. These birds are not only symbols of overall ecosystem health but of our ability to responsibly steward our public and private lands for both wildlife and people in perpetuity.

While we can only mourn the loss of our great prairies we have a chance with our sagebrush-steppe to do things right.

sage-grouse lek

Sage-grouse males gather in a large location to show off for females and win favor. The gathering is known as a lek. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab)

What is it like photographing a sage-grouse lek? 

Your day starts out hours before sunrise. You have to be in your blind at least an hour before sunrise and where we were working in Wyoming it is typically very cold at those hours. So you’re half asleep, stumbling through the sagebrush in the dark to find a small cramped blind where you will sit in the dark trying to stay warm awaiting the birds arrival.

On many occasions I have wondered what the heck am I doing out here, dreaming of my warm bed, and then you hear the jet-like swoosh of wings overhead as the birds start arriving. Then you forget all the discomfort and become totally engrossed for hours as one of the great wildlife spectacles in nature unfolds before you.

The great thing about shooting sage-grouse is that the birds come to you and as long as you are concealed in a blind they go about their business, often at an arms length away, as if you weren’t even there. Soon after the birds arrive you are engulfed in sound with the pops and swooshes of males displaying all around you. I’m often lying on my belly — seeing a male grouse perform his display just feet away from you is an experience it is hard to describe. Hopefully we were able to capture some of what that’s like for people in the film. It’s something I wish everyone would have the chance to experience at least once in their life.  

dead pronghorn

"A dead pronghorn with its leg caught in a barbed wire fence on BLM near Pinedale Wyoming. This is a common sight in areas with sheep fences. Pronghorn are unable to jump well and often get their legs caught leading to a grueling death." (Photo: Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab)

The sage-grouse is the key player in this story, but what other species are also being affected? What else directly benefits from the conservation work done for the grouse?

There are several species that depend wholly on sagebrush like sage-grouse do. The sagebrush sparrow, sage thrasher, Brewer’s sparrow, pygmy rabbit, sagebrush vole, and sagebrush lizard are some of these so-called “sage obligates”. There are many other species that also occur widely in sagebrush-steppe habitats. A few of these such as pronghorn, mule deer, golden eagles, and burrowing owls appear in the film. All of these species stand to benefit from sage-grouse conservation efforts.

sunrise over energy companies

Energy companies are encroaching on the sagebrush habitat, and have sweeping impacts over the flora and fauna. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab)

You spent three years working on the film airing on PBS. Tell us about some of the changes you documented just over that short period of time.

Part of the problem with documenting the declines of species like sage-grouse is that they occur slowly over long periods of time and populations fluctuate up and down from year to year due to natural conditions. The degradation of habitat over time is a classic slow build disaster —there is no smoking gun — it is a combination of things that chip away over time and many of these things are subtler than a gas well going in.

Certainly we saw new natural gas fields being built, roads being built, areas that were over-grazed, new subdivisions going in, but you can’t point to any one of these and say that by itself its responsible. What we tried to do is introduce the idea of all of these gradual changes happening over time and what effects those changes have had on population numbers.

During our filming we fell in love with one are of Sublette County, Wyoming BLM land called Alkali Basin (and known to the natural gas industry as the NPL). It is a key wintering area for several thousands grouse and just a beautiful landscape of sandstone and sage. We have been documenting that area extensively as it is under direct threat of a large-scale natural gas development that would surely affect the grouse population there. It would be deeply disappointing to see that happen.

burrowing owl family

The burrowing owl is another species that can be found in this ecosystem. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab)

What particular challenges did you have in trying to photograph the sage-grouse and other species for this story? 

Wyoming is a windy place. My biggest frustrations often involved being battered by wind. It was also challenging to film many of the species because they spend their time concealed within the thick sagebrush or are primarily active at night.

For the more sensitive species like hawks and eagles, we used remote cameras and blinds that were put in place seasons in advance so we definitely had a lot of logistical and technological challenges to overcome. Most of the footage in this film was pretty hard earned.

sage-grouse chicks

These sage-grouse chicks are just 1 day old. Healthy clutches like these represent the future of a disappearing species. (Photo: Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab)

Do you have a moment or experience from working on this project that really stands out as a special moment for you in your work?

Some of the most thrilling moments for me came filming the intimate family lives of birds. I watched both greater sage-grouse and sandhill crane eggs hatch and followed the first days in the lives of these birds. It is always humbling to see these tiny frail looking creatures take their first steps and within hours develop coordination, curiosity and personalities.

The two crane chicks were particularly fun to watch as they competed with each other and beat each other up pretty good on occasion. 

Some of my best memories were just moments of being out there in some of the most beautiful untouched sage country we have left. Hearing the coyotes at night, the call of an owl, the snowy Wind River Range on the horizon, the smell of sage.

What do you hope viewers take away after watching the documentary film?

Overall we hope people simply gain a greater appreciation for this landscape that is usually thought of as flyover county. People will be hearing a lot about the Greater Sage-Grouse in the coming months, and we want them to know that it is more than a controversy; it is an amazing national treasure, as splendid as any bird on Earth. And it is at the center of an ecosystem that is unique and underappreciated and embodies the spirit and romance of the American West.

Watch the trailer for the film and be sure to tune in to PBS tomorrow at 8 p.m. EST to watch the full documentary:

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

Can energy companies save the sage-grouse?
Conservation photographer Gerrit Vyn discusses what it is like documenting a species and ecosystem on the cusp of change.