Local filmmaker to premiere new NOVA documentary at the Wheeler | AspenTimes.com

Local filmmaker to premiere new NOVA documentary at the Wheeler

If You Go …

What: “Wildways: Corridors of Life”

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Friday, March 18, 5:30 p.m. (reception); 7:30 p.m. (screening)

Cost: $25/GA; $50 reception and screening

Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com

More info: A post-screening discussion will include director James Brundige and concervationist Harvey Locke. Wilderness Workshop and Gravity Promotions will host an after-party at the Crystal Palace from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Phrases like “connectivity conservation” aren’t the most visually captivating in the English language. So when Old Snowmass-based filmmaker James Brundige set out to make a documentary about the shrinking habitat for wildlife on Earth, and efforts to connect migration paths broken up by human development, he decided to focus on big, beautiful animals that we all love.

Elephants, bison, bulls, wolves, bears, lions and zebras are among the stars of his new film, “Wildways: Corridors of Life.”

“These are the large, charismatic animals that people automatically love and respond to,” Brundige said. “That’s to give people an emotional connection to connectivity.”

He and his team also enlisted a graphic artist who could use satellite imagery to powerfully illustrate the phenomenon on a larger scale.

“Wildways” outlines how roads and human developments have cut apart and taken over large mammals’ home turf, creating “islands of habitat” in the form of parks and preserves. Rather than solving the problem, even large preserves such as Yellowstone National Park at 3,500 square miles aren’t large enough or connected enough to allow animals to sustain themselves naturally.

“Most of them are too small to protect the native biodiversity that they’re set up to protect,” Stephen Woodly of Parks Canada says in the film.

Adds Brundige, “We thought they were going to be a Noah’s Ark in a sea of humanity.”

The film follows scientists and conservationists, from Yellowstone to the Serengeti, who are trying some innovative solutions to make room for wildlife — tracking them and trying to cut new paths that could help them thrive again.

“Wildways” will premiere at the Wheeler Opera House today. It will be broadcast nationally on the popular PBS science series “NOVA” on April 20 as the program’s Earth Day special.

“It’s very different from your average ‘NOVA,’” Brundige said. “But we thought it would be a good vehicle, because it gets beyond our normal conservation audience.”

Brundige, whose First Light Films has been based in Snowmass since 1994, began what would become “Wildways” on the tail end of making “Forever Wild.” That 2009 documentary, which was also broadcasted on PBS, focused on the American wilderness system. He began working on a chapter for that film about the importance of connecting wildlife habitat. But he soon realized that the subject demanded its own movie.

“In making that film, we came to understand that the American parks and wilderness system is necessary but not sufficient,” Brundige said.

So he embarked on a five-year journey to make “Wildways.” He began in Yellowstone, studying the heralded Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. That ambitious nonprofit project is seeking to connect habitat through the North American mountain west to the Yukon. Brundige calls it “the mother of all connectivity projects.”

“They’ve really started to make some progress on the ground,” he said. “So we started there.”

From there he went to Africa and found conservationists attempting to protect the migration path of the largest elephant herd in the world.

In a place like Aspen, surrounded by swaths of wilderness and wildlife, the film is likely to hit close to home. News stories here regularly chronicle the diminishing numbers of the local deer and elk herds, and the installation of elk fencing on Highway 82 to prevent wildlife-versus-car crashes has cut off the herd’s ability to move from Missouri Heights across the highway toward the Crown Mountain area.

Connectivity advocates like those featured in “Wildways” would recommend a wildlife overpass in such an area.

“It would be great to have a successful corridor and crossing structure to be able to move between those two areas,” Brundige said.

Carbondale’s Wilderness Workshop, which is hosting today’s screening, is pushing for wildlife overpasses on Vail and Wolf Creek passes, Brundige noted. Brundige is hopeful the film will inform local and regional audiences who may have first-hand experience with such issues, as well as a global audience that may be further removed.

“I would like everyone to understand the need for connectivity and for more habitat to be protected,” Brundige said. “I’m very much of the belief to think globally and act locally. So I’m hoping it works on both levels.”

Next, Brundige has his eye on making a film about the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden, and its holistic approach to global conservation. But for a while he’ll be on the road with “Wildways,” with screenings planned in Jackson Hole, Banff, Austin and elsewhere this spring.

atravers@aspentimes.com