Marc Dantzker talks conservation, presents new film The Sagebrush Sea

By Christa Rodriguez || Layout Assistant 

Dantzker, who earned his Ph.D from UCSD, began his career as a biologist, and started producing films and online content at Cornell University and eventually started his own production company, Range Ride Productions, where he produced The Sagebrush Sea.

Dantzker, who earned his Ph.D from UCSD, began his career as a biologist, and started producing films and online content at Cornell University and eventually started his own production company, Range Ride Productions, where he produced The Sagebrush Sea.

Biologist and filmmaker Marc Dantzker, Ph.D, Dantzker earned his M.S. in zoology from Duke University and a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Dantzker started his career as a biologist, but began producing films and online multimedia at Cornell Lab of Ornithology for 10 years that focused on science education and wildlife preservation. Eventually he started Range Ride Productions, which came out with The Sagebrush Sea, his most recent film. He often partners with conservation organizations to promote education, advocacy, and public policy.

Dantzker co-directed, co-wrote, and co-produced The Sagebrush Sea, a nature film about the Sage-Grouse bird and the ecosystem it needs to survive.

“We work to make a film that would make a difference in an ecosystem,” Dantzker said.

The film was broadcast as part PBS’s Nature series in 2015 before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency announced its Endangered Species Act listing. Dantzker’s talk, along with clips from the film, helped explore the complicated relationship between conservation, politics, and natural history.

The film’s trailer depicted the beauty of the Sage-Grouse’s home, often called the “Big Empty,” and showed it is much more than its name would imply. Its home, also called the Sagebrush Sea, is spread throughout 11 Western states in the U.S and stretches 250,000 square miles. Today, there is only 50 percent left of its original size. This has contributed to a great decline in the number of Grouses. There used to be between five and 15 million birds and now there are only a couple hundred thousand left.

There are multiple causes of the Sage-Grouse’s decline in population. In some places, there are invasive species and fire affecting nesting habitats, while in other areas oil and gas mining is a prominent danger. Even wind farms and transmission lines are hurtful to the Sage-Grouse, because they are terrified of the tall structures and will not live near them. Additionally, the sprawl of people now living in the area as well as ranchette vacation homes are affecting the bird’s habitat. There are also unusually high predator densities. Other issues include barbed wire fences, dangerous road crossings, and hunting of the Sage-Grouse.

Dantzker said it is not that people are unaware of the bird, but that there is a lack of concern.

“I happen to love this bird,” Dantzker explained, and completed his dissertation on it.

At that time, however, even he did not know much of its troubles.

“They are a fancy chicken in the end, and people treat them that way,” Dantzker said.

However, the bird’s habitat has become a very divisive issue in the West. When Dantzker wanted to make the film, he had a choice between making an advocacy film and a nature film. He went the nature route, because he thought that describing the differences in opinion that already existed would not help advance the issue. His goal was to avoid vilifying people, but still address the issues surrounding the bird.

One scene Dantzker played during his lecture highlighted the other species of birds and plants that live in the West, which reflected the beauty of the land. Dantzker says this film was more for the general public, as the government is aware of the issues. His success was indicated by the 2.5 million households that watched the film on PBS.

He later presented the film at the White House and met the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel. He later assisted her with an announcement video that shared an optimistic message and depicted Westerners who wanted to honor their land. Even though Dantzker’s helped with the video, he disagreed with its overall message.

“I don’t think the future is bright for this bird,” he said.

Even though the Sage-Grouse ultimately was not listed as an endangered species, Dantzker said it is “not an issue that’s going away.” He pointed out that they can reapply to be listed in the future.

“The challenge for us is to stay relevant,” Dantzker said. Currently, Dantzker is working on educational materials for school curriculums. It is important to him to help educate the next generation of people who will make environmental decisions. Dantzker concluded by saying the Sage-Grouse’s home is not just an empty wasteland, but a valuable ecosystem that we should care about.

First-year Christa Rodriguez is a Layout Assistant. Her email is crodrigu@fandm.edu.

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