I first became aware of Mike Forsberg’s work Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild two years ago when I was asked to introduce him and his slideshow presentation of images from his book at our local Audubon preserve where I was board chairman.
Over the next year and a half, I traveled through ten states following Mike with a video production crew to some of the most remote, endangered and stimulating environments to produce the PBS documentary, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild. Today’s wildlife photographer has to be proficient with all sorts of new technology — such as walkie-talkie triggered cameras and infrared camera traps — that didn’t even exist just a few years ago in order to create striking images that can compete for the shrinking print market. To illustrate this, there is a scene in producer Gary Hochman’s Your Photos on QUEST: Great Plains Photographer story where you see Mike setting up a camera trap in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A month later, Mike returned to the scene and retrieved the digital photos stored on his camera, captured when the mountain lion and deer shown in the story set off the traps.
When most of us think about the Great Plains, we think of very long, flat and boring stretches of interstate highway – endless concrete slabs running east to west. Or we think about flying over the patchwork quilt of vast stretches of irrigated corn, wheat and milo fields or cross-fenced prairie cattle country dotted by windmills, stock tanks and two-track jeep roads that look like ant tracks from above.
But to Mike Forsberg and the scientists, land-owners, conservationists and educators who helped him achieve his goal of publishing striking images and words about the last remnants of the wild and untamed prairie, there is much more to and much more at stake in the Great Plains.
Hidden away in remote, nearly inaccessible places are remarkable creatures most of us will never see or even know exist: black-footed ferrets emerging from their underground dens at dawn; a million Mexican free-tailed bats exiting a gypsum cave at dusk; nesting willets in the vast pot-holed Missouri Coteau region; prairie grizzlies and mountain lions caught at night in Mike’s ingenious camera traps.
And for each of the species Mike captures with digital photography, there are also the people who have dedicated their lives to caring for and about them. We met Jill Morrison and her husband Dave Clarendon who have spent the past three decades fighting to keep the not-so-habitat-friendly coal-bed methane wells off their ranch near Sheridan, Wyoming. Jill and Dave have seen the water quality decline and the wildlife that supported a secondary outfitting and guided hunting business retreat much higher into the mountains.
We spent a night from dusk to dawn with Travis Livieri four-wheeling around a massive prairie dog town in the Conata Basin near Badlands National Park in South Dakota trying to capture and inoculate the elusive black-footed ferret. Ferrets, who prey on prairie dogs, were thought to be extinct until a rancher’s dog brought in a dead one a few decades ago, setting off a massive effort to live trap the few remaining individuals. After a few failed tries, a captive breeding program finally resulted in success. Travis, then a graduate biology student, was on the first team that reintroduced the ferrets to their natural habitat.
Mike Forsberg is enormously dedicated to his self-imposed task of photographing everything of meaning and consequence in the remaining natural world of the Great Plains. He hears birds when no one else does and knows them by their call. He has remarkable distance vision. He clambers up steep hills like a mountain goat with a load of photo gear. He dresses in camouflage and blends in with his surroundings, keeping still for hours at a stretch.
What I learned from this experience of a lifetime is that “the lingering wild” is as much a part of Mike Forsberg as it is a part of this rare, beautiful landscape that has once more come into stunning focus for me.
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A documentary team led by NET Television producer Mike Farrell and photographer Mike Forsberg spent over a year exploring the vast landscape of the Great Plains, meeting people and exploring problems that are having an impact on the area. What they found was both hopeful and troubling. These are just a few of the things they found on their journey, which will eventually become the PBS documentary Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild.