The grizzly puzzle 

Vital Ground pieces together a critical jigsaw

Doug Seus insists grizzly bears possess an "ape intelligence." In his three decades training grizzlies for the film industry, Seus has noted their individualism, their focus, and their ability to use tools to solve problems. He says he once saw his first adopted bear, Bart, flip a wooden plank six times and position it across a bramble of hawthorn bushes—all to get at a discarded soda can without injuring his paws. "I watched him calculate the whole thing," Seus says. "It was just amazing the process that he went through to get what he wanted."

Seus has learned a thing or two about focus and problem solving from his bears—first Bart, then Little Bart, Honey Bump and Tank. In 1990, Seus and his wife, Lynne, founded the Missoula-based Vital Ground Foundation and, one year later, purchased a 240-acre parcel on the Rocky Mountain Front about 25 miles west of Choteau. Their goal was to preserve habitat for a recovering grizzly population in western Montana, and the Seuses haven't taken their eyes off the soda can since.

Earlier this summer, Vital Ground announced its latest land acquisition in the Northern Rockies: a 71-acre, low-elevation tract near Troy. The property is prime spring-and-fall grizzly habitat, and a key piece in the foundation's Cabinet-Purcell-Selkirk Wildlife Linkage Initiative.

click to enlarge Bart and Vital Ground founder Doug Seus - PHOTO BY KEITH HIGHLEY
  • Photo by Keith Highley
  • Bart and Vital Ground founder Doug Seus

Since 2003, Vital Ground, in partnership with government agencies, international projects and other nonprofit organizations, has invested in land and conservation easements in Idaho and northwestern Montana to ensure safe seasonal migration for foraging and reproducing grizzlies. Their efforts bolster larger grizzly conservation projects. Montana received a $4 million federal grant last week to protect 9,300 acres of Stimson Lumber Co. land in the same neighborhood as Vital Ground's recent acquisition.

"The Selkirk and the Cabinet-Yaak recovery zones shook out as priorities because of the status of the populations in those two areas," says Ryan Lutey, director of lands at Vital Ground. "Starting with the assumption that those were the populations most imperiled, we decided that would be the best place to invest our resources."

From 1991 to 2003, Vital Ground's contributions to conservation were limited to grant making for land and easement acquisitions by other organizations. Lutey says Vital Ground was "opportunistic" in those early years, bankrolling purchases with no tangible goal beyond general preservation. But in 2003, the group tightened its focus on small, privately held, low-elevation parcels in griz country that might otherwise play host to future development.

"I don't know of any other organization that does that," says David Carr, senior program director for The Nature Conservancy's Montana chapter, a key beneficiary of Vital Ground grants over the past two decades. "It's allowed them to have a niche and a unique viewpoint...They have filled a vacuum in northern Idaho."

Vital Ground Executive Director Gary Wolfe says the timing of the foundation's linkage initiative presented hurdles. As the nonprofit developed the initiative in late 2007, the economy tanked. Fundraising became much more difficult than in previous years.

But even the downturn came with positive side effects. "The recession has been a stroke of good business for grizzly bear conservation because it's slowed [development] down enough to where we can make some strategic investments without our playing field changing on a daily basis," Lutey says.

Each of Vital Ground's two targeted ecosystems in the linkage initiative contains an estimated grizzly population of fewer than 50 bears. Since 1995, Vital Ground has contributed grant money to a number of conservation easement purchases by Montana Land Reliance, a group that maintains several property holdings in the Selkirk ecosystem. But this year's purchase is a first for the foundation: it's the only property in the Cabinet-Yaak that Vital Ground owns outright.

Wolfe says the foundation is treating its acquisitions—and, by extension, its broader goal—like a jigsaw puzzle. This summer's purchase aims to help connect an isolated population of grizzlies in the Purcell Mountains with the rest of the Cabinet-Yaak population. An additional acquisition of 187 acres along Highway 2—with a price tag of roughly $1.15 million—will further accommodate grizzly movement through the area. Lutey says that purchase should be completed by December 15.

"Both those landowners understood that Vital Ground does not have a large fund that we can turn to and buy whatever we want," Lutey says, "so they granted these option contracts to give us time to fundraise."

Meanwhile, Vital Ground has continued its efforts to connect the Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies with their counterparts in the Selkirk Recovery Zone in northwestern Idaho. And as those pieces fall into place, the foundation eyes another key linkage zone: a property on the south side of the Clark Fork River that could open the door for grizzly migration into the uninhabited Bitterroot Recovery Zone.

"If we can get these populations all connected, we feel like we'll have a more viable, more sustainable grizzly population in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, northeastern Washington and southern Canada," Wolfe says.

Doug Seus is glad to see Vital Ground exhibiting the same goal-focused intensity he once glimpsed in Bart, who died in 2000. Seus himself remains most active in bear training in Utah, teaching Little Bart, Honey Bump and Tank about "perimeters and mutual respect." After 20 years, the board he flipped is still moving toward that soda can. "Not to have done something," he says, "would have been mortifying to me."

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