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Inspired by Late Animal Actor “Bart the Bear” — Vital Ground Protects Grizzly Bear Habitat

Highly acclaimed natural history writer Doug Chadwick first met with Doug Seus, perhaps the world’s preeminent bear trainer, while Chadwick was researching an article for National Geographic Magazine on grizzly bears. Chadwick had seen a photo of Seus riding on the back of “Bart the Bear.” And then he just showed up on Seus’ doorstep...

Highly acclaimed natural history writer Doug Chadwick first met with Doug Seus, perhaps the world’s preeminent bear trainer, while Chadwick was researching an article for National Geographic Magazine on grizzly bears.

Doug and Lynne Seus

Chadwick had seen a photo of Seus riding on the back of “Bart the Bear.” And then he just showed up on Seus’ doorstep one day in 1984 to talk to the famous bear trainer. Chadwick was eager to get some unique perspectives on working closely with grizzlies from Seus. At the time, the animal trainer’s primary subject was a 1500 lb Kodiak brown bear named Bart.

The two Dougs, who are now close friends, traveled together on safari in East Africa in 1989 where Chadwick was working on an elephant story. Discussion turned to the great landscape of colonial America, as the two peered out over the Masai Mara. In awe of wildebeests and the other migratory ungulates on the African Plains, they contemplated an America when buffalo still roamed the West and California had grizzly bears. And they thought about what they could do to restore larger areas where America’s panoply of great native creatures dominated the landscape.

Doug Chadwick

Concerned over the status of the population of approximately1000 bears or fewer left in the lower 48 in Mid-80s, Chadwick and Seus both agreed that a supplemental approach to protect the iconic carnivore was warranted, especially because the population did not appear to be recovering very strongly from its low point. Traditional conservation practices seemed to have been of limited effectiveness for such a wide-ranging species.  Even though the population has been on the rebound with current numbers estimated to be around 1600 animals, the grizzly is still relegated to living on land comprised of only two percent of its historic range in the contiguous United States.

In an increasingly crowded and urbanized world, there are limitations to what existing protection can offer such a wide-ranging carnivore species. The grizzly has been listed as “threatened” in the lower 48 since 1975. So in 1990 they launched Vital Ground Foundation.  Wildlife ecologists, tend to study the measurable indicators that indirectly tell us what a bear does for a living and how bears are distributed across the landscape.  These barometers also tell us how a conservation-sensitive species is doing under protection.

Thus far bear biologists have done an exemplary job. I contend, however, that their job is more often about learning to know about the natural history of bears, and specifically their population ecology. They are not necessarily tasked with learning individual bears on an intimate level as the two Dougs have come to know them.  One way to know a bear so intimately is to raise one. Another way is to live among them, which is not usually recommended.   Another way is to observe them in nature as a pastime, which is what Chadwick has done a lot of over the years.

Although Chadwick has had a wild grizzly brush up against him, he has not lived with bears. As one of America’s esteemed nature writers living in Montana, he has really gotten to know bears in nature. Chadwick has logged hundreds, if not thousands of hours, observing brown bears in Montana, Alaska, British Columbia, and Central Asia.

Biologists often look at habitat suitability, and in areas where habitat restoration can benefit wildlife, restoration is one measure considered. Their assessments alone help immensely in instructing policy makers and others in the conservation arena on how to make decisions regarding the preservation and protection of habitat or what is left of it. And these biologists have contributed much to what we know about bears and what they need to survive.

strategy_and_scienceIn fact, biologists have done a remarkable job learning about bears and the needs of bears such that removal of the Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly bear population, the southern most population of grizzly bears, from the Endangered Species Act’s list of threatened and protected species was recently issued following a request by the USFWS. And in May 2007 the population was delisted.  Following much public outcry from environmental organizations and subsequent litigation, the grizzly was reinstated as a “threatened” species in 2009.  The Yellowstone area population is now estimated to be about 700 bears and it is again under federal protection.

So almost three decades ago, Doug and his wife, Lynne, and Chadwick began thinking of our natural heritage as it once flourished across the plains and mountainous landscapes of the Great West, and began to envision a future for the grizzly here in the lower 48.  The bruins currently have a limited range in three states (MT, ID, and WY), plus an occasional transient from British Columbia in Washington’s North Cascades.

vg_logoAware that the grizzly’s future as it still remains today is quite uncertain, Doug and Lynne Seus decided to buy some property in Montana—habit deemed not just appropriate and suitable, but considered prime habitat for grizzly bears. They purchased 240 acres of wild land adjoining protected land in Pine Butte Preserve along Montana’s eastern front of the Rocky Mountains. Chadwick was already living in the “heart” of Montana’s bear country. As I suggested, one thing lead to another and the two launched Vital Ground as a land trust dedicated to protecting grizzly bear habitat for the iconic umbrella species.

Now, based in Missoula, Montana, Vital Ground Foundation has purchased over 600,000 acres of private lands. The organization “works cooperatively with landowners, local communities, and state and federal agencies to address the issue of habitat fragmentation by permanently protecting crucial lands [for not only grizzly bears],” but [ALSO] other wide-ranging wildlife which utilize grizzly habitat.

Donate-NowI should state that Vital Ground is not interested in taking land from people for the sake of salvaging habitat for grizzly bears. What they are interested in doing is rewarding people for making their land accessible and permeable to wildlife.  These practices are often consistent with what people who live in grizzly country are already looking for—a place to live in proximity to raw and relatively undisturbed nature.

In addition, by negotiating with landowners with property adjoining public lands like national forests, Vital Ground helps communities not only increase the value of private land, but they help augment the land already set aside for wildlife, making it possible for animal populations to safely move from one protected area to another.

Through conservation easement programs Vital Ground pays people to accommodate the movement of wildlife on their property. “In some cases,” says Chadwick, “Vital Ground pays people to “keep doing the right thing on their own land for the benefit of wildlife.”  This may include implementing seasonal management of livestock or continuing with practices that accommodates the movement of bears.   In addition, they have worked with many partners in accruing the 600,000 plus acres for grizzlies, including, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, The Trust for Public Land, Five Valleys Land Trust, William H. Donner Foundation, and The Metabolic Studio.  They have also worked to retire grazing allotments, recovering such property for wildlife. Such land was once federal protected wilderness and in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, Vital Ground has restored it for bears and other majestic North American fauna.

Vital Ground Executive Director Gary Wolfe has often alluded to the importance of wildlife linkage on the landscape and the need to protect private lands to help support the movements of one of the world’s two largest terrestrial carnivore species.

“From housing developments to commercial sites, from roads to railroads, grizzlies and other wildlife face numerous human barriers,” he has said. “When contiguous blocks of habitat are broken into pieces from human activities, the result is habitat fragmentation.”

mamma_and_cubDoug Chadwick indicated that from the beginning he saw benefit to protecting as much private land near existing core habitat or linkage areas as possible, especially when the surrounding area is largely private, land.  This is because bears and other wildlife species may select different habitat to move across the landscape than the type of habitat that they choose for other purposes. Although some public land has been protected because of the suitable species-appropriate habitat it offers, it may not offer habitat that bears prefer to use when crossing or transitioning among different landscapes.

As an example, in the Northern Rockies Vital Ground “ is working with biologists to identify, where grizzly/wildlife movement opportunities still exist and is trying to protect these potential linkage areas.  using voluntary conservation easements or by acquiring the property from willing sellers.”

According to a Vital Ground Director of Lands Ryan Lutey, “these corridors will help restore and maintain the habitat connectivity between the large blocks of public land in the northern Rockies region, and foster wildlife movements between ecosystems across a permeable landscape. Intact linkage areas allow grizzlies and other wildlife to disperse to new ranges and exchange genes between populations.”

In a recent post, I mention some other current work Vital Ground is supporting in and near one of the five ecosystems where grizzly bears exist on public lands (under federal protection) and where applied conservation efforts for the grizzly continue in hopes of increasing long-term sustainability for the respective populations in these four ecosystems; the north cascades does not have resident grizzly bears in existence, nor does the Selway-Bitterroot/Central Idaho ecosystem.

I respect my colleagues, naturalists and biologists alike, and I defer to many of them all the time for different reasons, but I wanted to hear what Sues and Chadwick have to say not only as founding board members of Vital Ground, but as two passionate guys who know something about grizzly habitat and definitely know grizzly bears.

When a biologist meets a bear in the wild the interaction can be intense and usually somewhat stressful, at least for the bear and sometimes even for the bear biologist.   If a bear, for example, is discovered in a trap and then tranquilized, from the bear’s perspective, it is probably not having a good day.  Today, biologists spend even less time in the wild tracking and trapping bears, because technology and more innovative, less invasive methods of learning about bears has been made possible.

Chadwick and Seuss are not technically bear biologists, although Chadwick was trained as a wildlife biologist, but they know grizzly bears and bear behavior on an intimate level, as I’ve mentioned. Chadwick, who lives in Whitefish, Montana near Glacier National Park knows Montana’s grizzlies particularly well. As a nature writer Chadwick communicates wildlife science and ecology in an accessible way that must be palatable to the general public.

One can informally observe bears in the wild.  And some have tried to live among wild bears. Some have done it irresponsibly and a few even lost their lives trying to live with bears.  Others, perhaps more cognizant of the risks have taught us a lot about bears and got to know bears. Some had PhDs and some had GEDs.

But, in my opinion there is nothing like raising a grizzly bear and treating it like family. I don’t mean bringing a 1200-pound brown bear into the kitchen or dressing it like some have been known to dress performing great apes or doing anything of the kind. I mean developing that extraordinary bond, that most intimate relationship with the planet’s largest terrestrial carnivore.

This is what Doug Seuss did with the support of his wife Lynne.   He raised the feature film sensation, a 9’2, 1500 lb Kodiak brown bear named Bart.  Bart was born to a Kodiak bear in a zoo.  Doug and Lynne offered to raise the cub themselves on their own at their home and animal training facility- Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife, Inc. in Utah.

bart_doug_lynneBAs Lynne said, “From the time we got him in 1977, and until his death in 2000, Bart was a truly magical animal. And his film career took us on many grand adventure—from the majestic peaks of the Austrian Alps and the Alaska wilds, to the backstage of the Academy Awards.”

I could say the rest is history, as you know it. Since, late “Bart the Bear’s” starring role in the 1989 movie, The Bear, “Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife has specialized in Kodiak and grizzly bears and wolves.

Here is a recap. Featured on the big and small screen, in feature films and in documentaries, Bart’s performances wooed and moved audiences the world over in riveting critically acclaimed motion pictures.

Bart’s illustrious movie career included appearances in 15 feature films beginning in 1980 and spanning 17 years. He worked along side the likes of Academy Award winners Sir Anthony Hopkins, and nominees like Dan Aykroyd, Annette Bening and Brad Pitt. Pitt appeared with Bart in Legends of the Fall for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Bart also appeared with the likes of Sean Penn and Daryl Hanna.

“Bart the bear holds an envelope naming a winner at the 1998 Academy Awards. Bart himself was once nominated to receive an Oscar for The Bear. In that movie Bart had to be gentle to another bear’s cub. (Most bears are too aggressive to do so.) That’s as close as any animal has ever come to winning an Oscar. Animal actors are classified as props, not characters.”- National Geographic World, May 1999

Bart was also featured in 15 documentaries and 8 television programs between 1980 and 1999, including National Geographic’s “The Grizzlies” and National Geographic Explorer. Highly regarded, Legends of the Fall was released in 1994 and was an immediate hit. The movie jumped to number one at the box office and grossed 14 million dollars in just its first week after wide release to give you some idea of its popularity and reach.

The 1930’s era, epic drama showcasing the American West was ultimately nominated for three Academy Awards and a Golden Globe.  The film also earned producer/director Edward Zwick a nomination for Best Director, and the film ultimately won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

Legends_fall“Of all the movie stars I’ve ever worked with, Bart the Bear is as talented, cooperative, and charismatic as the best of them. He takes no time at all in make-up, never wants to stay in his trailer, and does all his own stunts. I can’t wait to work with him again.”- Ed Zwick, Director, Legends of the Fall

Legends may have earned Brad Pitt, an Oscar nomination but it made “Bart the Bear” a household name if he wasn’t one already. Ultimately grossing 66 million dollars the movie was quite a success on most accounts.

“Academy Award board member Ernest Gold moved to have a special achievement Oscar presented to Seus for The Bear, since the organization had received so many ecstatic letters from biologists. But Gold’s fellow members never watched the film and the matter was brought up at the wrong meeting, so that it was only when The Bear was finally nominated for Best Editing and screened that the other board members saw it and admitted they’d been too hasty in their decision.”- Video & Entertainment, May 1990

In my recent phone calls with Doug Chadwick and Doug Seus, I got an opportunity to chat with them about nature writing and training bears and learn something about Vital Ground’s vision and philosophy. Seus, a guru when it comes to animal training, shared perspectives with me on that innate intuition required to successfully develop a rapport with these formidable creatures like bears. To paraphrase Doug, “Not everyone has the intuition to work with animals in this capacity and it is not something you learn in school.”  He did say that he spent a great deal of time studying the plight of the grizzly bear, which is one reason the man who raised “Bart-the-Bear” wanted to do something for these beasts of “legend and that it was in fact Bart who inspired Vital Ground.

Chadwick and I talked a bit about nature writing, and his travels and specifically about grizzly bears and the direction Vital Ground has taken from the purchase of the first property in Montana to the 600,000 acres they have protected today on behalf of grizzly bears. Although Chadwick has traveled the world and worked with the great megafauna of the planet, he says there is something special about our native grizzly bear in all its majesty and particularly because it is right in his backyard.

bart-the-bear-headerBoth Seuss and Chadwick recognize the interesting dichotomy reflected in the Vital Ground Foundation.  On one hand, a family of captive grizzly bears continues to inspire the protection of their wild counterparts through safeguarding private lands.  Essentially the protection of habitat is conferred through a land trust and not what might have been expected such as a more focused species conservation or habitat restoration program.

Void of ego and full of hope, Chadwick and Seus are progressive thinkers. They are eager to stay focused on this land trust, which started with humble beginnings and the inspiration of bear named Bart.  And now Vital Ground is poised to take a place in history as it has begun to shape a more sustainable future for the American icon, the grizzly bear.

And as for Bart the Bear who died far too young at age 23, “his legacy went far beyond his film career. He is the “spokesbear” for the Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University, but his greatest role was as Ambassador of Vital Ground. Vital Ground has procured threatened wildlife habitat in Idaho, Montana and Alaska. Because of Bart’s life in captivity, many of his wild brothers and sisters are able to roam free.” –

(All photos are courtesy of Vital Ground/Bart the Bear websites)

165846_3381220131401_1475779889_n About the Author: Jordan received his PhD studying captive and free-ranging bears, including populations of Alaska’s grizzly bears. He is a former animal trainer, sanctuary curator, and now a journalist. Here he is pictured with two orphaned Kodiak brown bear cubs, which were rescued by the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and raised by Jordan. For more News Watch articles by Dr. Jordan Schaul, please visit his author page.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
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: