Years after he began documenting the conflicts over North Carolina’s endangered red wolves, multimedia journalist Jeff Mittelstadt found an illuminating story within the story.
Mittelstadt, who until November was Davidson College’s sustainability director, is president of WildSides. The nonprofit organization explores all sides of conflicts between humans and wildlife in an effort to find common ground.
Mittelstadt interviewed boat captains, fishermen and advocates for an earlier short film on endangered North Atlantic right whales, which fall prey to fishing gear entanglements and boat strikes.
He set out to learn about red wolves and humans in 2011, while finishing a master’s degree at UNC Chapel Hill.
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Declared extinct in the wild, the animals rebounded after being reintroduced to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the coastal plain in 1987. But property owners are now complaining about the animals on their land and wolves are being shot, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could end the program.
Mittelstadt, 39, filmed hunters, landowners and biologists to get their perspectives. But the story took a deeply personal twist last June.
Chris Lucash, a federal biologist who had been with the wolf program from its beginning, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS is a progressive, degenerative disease that is fatal.
Lucash, who had been a primary source on fieldwork with wolves, decided to let Mittelstadt tell his story so his three children will understand his work and to convey a message about people and nature. The result is a documentary in progress, “Staring Down Fate.”
“He’s staring down fate along with the red wolf,” Mittelstadt said, both physically and in wondering what will happen to them. “For the red wolf and Chris Lucash, their survivability is not in their own hands.”
Lucash, 54, believes humans have disconnected from nature. He tried to fix a broken piece of it.
“The idea of taking something that had very few of them and had the odds stacked against them, and providing them an opportunity – a habitat, a time, a space – to go back to what they were naturally supposed to be, that was a very rewarding thing,” Lucash says in the film.
Mittelstadt has self-funded his work, which includes podcasts and a breakdown of issues on the WildSides site, using vacations while at Davidson to trek to the coast. Now he’s trying to raise $50,000 to finish production, including interviews with experts on links between ALS and exposure to some agricultural pesticides.
He hopes the 75- to 90-minute film will be edited and finished by the end of 2016. It will be submitted to film festivals with hopes of reaching distribution agreements.
Lucash “thinks it’s really important to understand what’s happening to nature,” Mittelstadt said. “He wants his children to see what he was doing for his job, but also what he stands for.”