Changing Planet

Vital Ground Protects Grizzly Bear Habitat Throughout Their North American Range

Grizzly Bear (Nat Geo Archives)

Vital Ground is a Montana-based land trust dedicated to protecting grizzly bear habitat in North America.

The organization supports bear conservation ecology studies in 6 ecosystems, which are scattered throughout Alaska, the Lower 48 (Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming) and in Canada.

According to the organization’s newly revamped website, the land trust has “helped protect and enhance nearly 600,000 acres of crucial wildlife habitat in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, and British Columbia” since the inception of the organization in 1990.

Just recently, Vital Ground contributed several thousand dollars to a USGS hair-sampling study currently underway to estimate the number of grizzly bears inhabiting the 2.4 million acre Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

The bear population being studied in the area of the Yaak River Drainage Basin by the USGS scientists is in danger and could vanish altogether. The population is suspected to be extremely small with as few 30 to 40 bears in two disconnected subpopulations. In other words, the grizzly bear population in the region is barely hanging on.

The mountainous 6,690 square km Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem and the 3,185 square km surrounding area is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designated grizzly bear recovery area in the trans-boundary region of British Columbia and Northwestern Montana. It has long been occupied by grizzly bears, which are usually considered umbrella species in the various landscapes that they continue to call home.

The USGS study, launched in 2012, required a setup crew of 70 people and has involved monitoring bear hair-snagging stations across the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem’s Cabinet mountain range of northwest Montana and northern Idaho—a mountain range contiguous with British Columbia’s Purcell mountains. The Cabinet-Purcell mountain range offers core habitat for grizzly bears.

vg_logoFamed animal trainer Doug Seus and wife Lynne of the Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife, Inc. founded Vital Ground as way to give back to their beloved Bart the Bear, perhaps the greatest bear ambassador to have ever lived and a heck of a sensation in feature films.

Photo by Joel Sartore of Nat Geo

The Seuses realized that through their work with Bart, they could best help save grizzly bears by protecting grizzly habitat. They purchased 240 acres of land in Montana’s Rocky Mountains—a piece of prime grizzly bear habitat that adjoins Pine Butte Preserve, a protected area in the state.

According to the Vital Ground website, “The goal is to protect habitats in a way that will allow grizzly populations living in the lower 48 states to connect with more robust populations in southern portions of Alberta and British Columbia. This would ultimately give grizzlies access to the northern end of the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem, the largest wildland complex south of Canada, which is currently unoccupied by grizzlies.”

The Seusses continue to work with captive animal ambassadors, and a new generation of grizzly bears have followed in Bart’s footsteps, entertaining and educating the masses about grizzly bears. In the meantime, Vital Ground will serve as a land trust protecting habitat for bears and other North American wildlife for years to come.

About the Author

Kodiak Cubs 009
Dr. Jordan Schaul & Kodiak Cub “Taquka” in AK (Photo by Doug Lindstrand, 2011)

Dr. Jordan Carlton Schaul is a “retired” zoo keeper and animal trainer based in Los Angeles, California. He recently joined the Wildlife Waystation and serves as their Director of Advancement.

Earlier this summer, Jordan returned from India, where he served as a consulting adviser for communication, development and scientific research programs for Wildlife SOS, the largest animal welfare and conservation organization in South Asia.

Prior to his work in Asia, he served as general curator and conservation biologist for zoological facilities in California and Alaska, including the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

He studied infectious diseases of captive and free-ranging bears, including wild Alaskan brown for his PhD studies at The Ohio State University. He was the founding chairperson of the Conservation Education Committee of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA). Jordan is also a former member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group.

For his complete biography, please visit his author page on the National Geographic Society website.


With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email:
  • David Stalling

    Thanks for the report. Vital Ground is a great organization, doing critically important work, and worthy of support from all who care about the future of wild grizzlies.

  • Rene ORR

    It is vital that we care and protect one of our most important of wild species, the Grizzly.
    Vital Ground does just that and it all began with a very special bear that we all know, BART THE BEAR and Doug Suess.
    His work is very important for the continuation of the bears and for us to stay viable for all to survive.

  • Richard Spratley

    Hello, I am writing in hopes of getting your help in some way. There was a juvenile male Grizzly Bear that was a study bear in Grand Tetons National Park. This bear is known as #760 or Jim Bear as we like to call him. He was a very pleasant and very non-aggressive bear. He was only 4 years old and was maturing beautifully. His lack of aggression cost him his life by the Wyoming Fish and Game Dept who shot and killed him after relocating him just 3 weeks earlier. This bear was relocated in early October because he wandered onto someone ranch south of the Grand Tetons. They put him in an area west of Yellowstone near Clark, WY. This small town is surrounded by sage flats and not usually a place for Grizzlies. He was just trying to seek out new territory after being uprooted before the hibernation. He threatened no one, but just because he was a Grizzly, they killed him because he was too close to their town. There are hundreds of us who enjoyed him over the last 4 years. We have images of him as an infant cub. He was a good bear and never once showed any sign of aggression. As a matter of fact, all he wanted to do was live in peace with them and be left alone. They betrayed him. They shipped him to an area they knew he wouldn’t survive in. Less than 3 weeks after this relocation, they shot and killed him. We are sick and we want answers. Mostly, we want to prevent this kind of mismanagement from ever happening again. We established a Facebook page called 760, his life, his death. It’s growing and growing every day with people outraged by his murder. I personally was within 50-70 yards of him on a few occasions and he never thought anything of me. Just as peaceful and nice as you could ever want a bear to be. Many people will say the same thing. Is there anything you can do to help our cause? Please let me know…..Thank you very much.

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