A range of film festivals showcase documentaries focusing on the natural world, and two such films produced by the Platte Basin Timelapse project — “High Plains Wild” and “Counting Cranes” — have been selected as official entries in various festivals. “High Plains Wild,” examining the reintroduction of bighorn sheep in Nebraska’s Wildcat Hills and conservation work to sustain the population, last year received two film festival awards.
The Wild and Working Lands Film Festival honored “High Plains Wild” with its Migration Initiative Award. The film was third runner-up in the YaleEnvironment360 Film Contest.
In addition, “High Plains Wild” was an official selection in 2022 for the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival and the S.O.F.A Film Festival. In 2023, it has been selected for the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, Wild and Scenic Film Festival and Dam Short Film Festival.
Grant Reiner, a producer with Platte Basin Timelapse, was featured in the film as he documented wildlife in the Wildcat Hills in working toward a Master of Science in Applied Science from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources. His mentor for the project was Michael Forsberg, a conservation photographer and research assistant professor in SNR who has been doing work in the Wildcat Hills for years.
Platte Basin Timelapse is a conservation storytelling project that aims to educate people about water, wildlife and conservation stories within the river basin. The project involves a network of more than 60 timelapse cameras across the Platte River’s 90,000-square-mile basin.
“Counting Cranes,” focusing on the natural habitat in central Nebraska supporting the annual crane migration, is an official selection for a range of film festivals. In the film, viewers see the work of biologist Andy Caven of the Crane Trust and his team during their annual “crane count” aerial surveys. The film explains the evolving nature of the crane habitat and the wide-ranging benefits from promoting the region’s environmental sustainability.
In 2022, the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival selected “Counting Cranes” as an official entry. In 2023, the film will appear at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, Wild and Scenic Film Festival and Dam Short Film Festival.
Last year was the first time the Platte Basin Timelapse project submitted films to festivals, said Mariah Lundgren, a senior producer and project manager for the project. Lundgren directed and edited “High Plains Wild” and produced “Counting Cranes,” co-editing it with Reiner.
“I believe it is important to educate folks about wildlife and ecology,” Lundgren said, “because we depend on our planet’s natural resources more than most may realize.”
The game cameras and camera traps in Nebraska’s Wildcat Hills recorded a notable breadth of active wildlife, Reiner says in “High Plains Wild.”
“I captured everything from pack rats to mountain lions — songbirds, birds of prey, turkey vultures, mule deer, fox, coyotes,” he said. “There’s just so much out there. And the camera traps also captured bighorn sheep.”
“These are rugged landscapes,” Forsberg says in the film. “There’s a lot of wildlife, but a lot of times we don’t see it. Being able to put some cameras out there, watching and recording when you’re not, is a really important tool to tell the story of life out here on the high plains.”
The film’s images of bighorn sheep show them in quiet, picturesque settings as well as fast-moving climbing mode along the Wildcat Hills’ steep grades. Bighorn sheep are “tremendous athletes,” Reiner said. The nimble creatures “can scale these walls that you would never dream of going up or down.”
In “Counting Cranes,” Crane Trust biologist Andy Caven explains the aerial surveys that take place at the start of the morning from mid-February to mid-April. The team flies out of Hastings, Nebraska, heads north to Chapman, then along the Platte River west to Overton and back.
“Counting Cranes” features images of the plane gliding slowly and gracefully along the river. During the 75-minute flight, the team uses estimation techniques that, at peak season, can go as high as 600,000 to 800,000 cranes.
The annual event “is not just the largest gathering of cranes in North America,” Caven said. “It’s the largest gathering of cranes in the world.” Indeed, it “is one of the last great migrations on Earth.”
Having ongoing crane counts has value in several regards. The data show how the ecosystem is changing over time. “In the 1950s,” Caven said, “peak abundance of Sandhill cranes was in the Cozad/Gothenburg area, which we don’t even count anymore because there’s zero cranes. So the character of the river has changed.”
The counts, Caven said, have “taught us that these cranes are coming earlier, staying longer, shifting east and packing in to fewer areas where the river has changed less and there’s still significant treeless expanses of meadow and prairie.”
Encouraging sustainable environments along the central Platte for the long term, he said, can help not only the crane population, but a wide range of other animal species. To accomplish that, “we have to think big.”
“Creating films about natural resources and conservation is one way to help people become more educated or care a little deeper about these topics,” Lundgren said. “I am particularly interested in telling stories and creating films in places such as prairies and grasslands because these places, although often overlooked, hold tremendous value and deserve a voice.”