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The Claws in His Contract

07

companions By Roger Toll

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Little bart with doug and lynne seus

he old ranching town of Heber City, Utah, sits on the backside of the Wasatch Range, in the shadow of Mount Timpanogos, its most distinctive peak. Doug and Lynne Seus live on the town’s southern fringes, below hills covered in sage. A creek rolls through their property, and on a recent day a grizzly bear was romping in it as playfully as an otter. The bear was Little Bart, a 5-year-old Kodiak grizzly, whose latest role in a burgeoning thespian career is in An Unfinished Life, a Miramax film starring Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez. Little Bart is one of three orphaned bears

110 Sky november 2005

adopted by the Seuses, and the biggest. When Doug calls, the bear gets out of the water and ambles across the backyard lawn for a half-hour workout, a mix of play, training and TLC. With a massive back paw set on a flagstone “mark” used for establishing his place during filming, Little Bart follows Doug through a wide-ranging repertoire of acting moves, what Doug calls “behaviors,” that the bear performs on command. “This is the way a grizzly snorts just before an attack,” Doug says, and his protégé demonstrates. “It’s what most directors need at some point in a role.” Playing the villain seems a stretch, given this giant’s gentle roughhousing with Doug. At Doug’s prompts, Little Bart stands upright, nearly 9 feet tall, and stretches his front paws to the sky. Doug sticks his hand, then his head, between Bart’s teeth. When Bart lies down, Doug rolls on top of him. Doug, nearly 6 feet tall, is dwarfed by Little Bart’s bulk, especially when the bear sits up like a teddy and, with enormous claws that work like fingers, pulls Doug under his oversized belly. “The secret is to be in command at all times.” Doug says. “These beings are acutely intelligent and individualistic, with a broad spectrum of emotion. You are no longer the top of the food chain when they are around.” Raised from childhood with a love for the wilderness, 63year-old Doug Seus is distinctly bearlike himself, with a voice that growls and a penchant for grabbing visitors in an affectionate bear hug. “There is no disguising my emotions,” he says. “When I am with the bears, the communication is totally honest. I don’t have to deal with any human falsity when I’m with the animals.” In 1977, Lynne and Doug adopted their first bear, Bart, from a zoo with the idea of training him for movies. Ten years later, Bart’s career was soaring; in 1989 he was even put up for a Special Achievement Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for The Bear. And in 1998, Bart went onstage at the Oscars to present a statue. Bart died

“They were orphans and could not have survived in the wild,” says Lynne Seus of the adopted bears. “Now they have a role that can hopefully make people see bears in a different light.”

photos courtesy of vital ground

Little Bart, a Kodiak grizzly, is a Hollywood star. Thanks to Vital Ground, there’ll be more like him.


: companions two years later, just days after the Seuses adopted orphaned sibling cubs they named Little Bart and Honey-Bump. As Little Bart and Honey-Bump follow today in Bart’s paw prints as film stars—appearing in both dramatic and documentary productions—they are also driving the Seuses’ work not in Hollywood but in bear habitat. In the United States, that habitat and the population of these great wild creatures are both shrinking. In the lower 48, grizzlies roam in just five ecosystems: the Northern Continental Divide in Montana, with about 400 to 500 bears; the Greater Yellowstone, with more than 600 bears; the Cabinet-Yaak in western Montana and Idaho, with about 40-plus; the Selkirk in northern Idaho, also with more than 40; and the North Cascades in Washington, with about five to 10. Buttressed by their good Hollywood income, Doug and Lynne had begun pondering how to give back to animals in the late 1980s. They decided on helping those grizzlies still in the wild, endangered by human encroachment and development. In 1990, they founded Vital Ground (www.vitalground.org), a land trust with the sole focus of conserving habitat for grizzly bears. They bought a ranch in Montana and gave it back to wilderness. “Its purchase ensured a safe passage between two already protected habitats, which is crucial for genetic dispersion,� says Doug. Over the years, they have continued to buy more pieces of land with their money and put conservation easements on them through Vital Ground. Bart became the foundation’s official ambassador, a role that Little Bart assumed after Bart’s death. “The films are great and all that, but our animals’ lives in captivity have to matter for something beyond movies and commercials,� says Lynne. “They were orphans and could not have survived in the wild. Now

112 Sky november 2005

they have a role that can hopefully make people see bears in a different light.� In May, Vital Ground moved its offices from Park City, Utah, to Missoula, Montana, in the heart of bear country. Several months earlier, the Seuses had

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Rockies Office, says Vital Ground is the only organization he knows of that is focused uniquely on grizzlies. “Vital Ground is a crucial partner in a team of organizations that have created a lot of win-win solutions for both ranchers and bears,� says France. “Together, we have protected hundreds of thousands of acres for grizzly bears.� In fact, $1.1 million has been channeled through Vital Ground to buy 234,000 acres of land in strategic locations during the last five years alone. Sometimes a purchase involves no more than 1,000 acres. But to a grizzly, the value per acre of even a small parcel can be immeasurable if it is a meadow with food sources a bear needs when it comes out of hibernation, salmon streams and estuaries, or a safe valley passage to another habitat that expands the range of these highly mobile animals. Some human neighbors of bear country don’t relish sharing their turf with grizzlies. Why should they accept the presence of bears, they ask, and the danger they pose to pets, children and themselves? Grizzly bears are important in our lives, Wolfe contends, because they’re what biologists call an umbrella species. “If a landscape supports a healthy bear population, then it’s a suitable habitat for all wildlife,� he says. “Every species needs protecting. Once you lose one, it is lost forever. We need to protect all the players because we still know so little about how ecological interdependency works.� Wolfe also sees a deeper, more experiential rationale beyond the scientific. “When I am hunting elk in Montana, I have a completely different feeling than when I hunt where there are no bears,� he says. “It is primordial. You are no longer the top-level predator in the

o a grizzly, the value per acre of even a small parcel can be immeasurable if it is a meadow with food sources a bear needs when it comes out of hibernation.

hired Gary Wolfe, a wildlife biologist who had also worked on a ranch in New Mexico, to be the nonprofit organization’s executive director. Like a lot of conservation-minded people in the Mountain West, Wolfe goes into the wilderness every fall to hunt deer and elk. His background gives him something in common with ranchers, whom he often approaches about protecting their lands from being developed into ranchettes and shopping malls, which at the same time protects wildlife habitat. “As a rancher, you don’t want to see your land subdivided 20 years down the road,� he says. “You want it to remain in production or as open space, and you can ensure that with a conservation easement.� Tom France, director of the National Wildlife Federation for the Northern

woods. When you see grizzly bear scat, footprints and hair on rub trees, it makes you aware that you’re really a very small part of all that’s around you. The absence of grizzly bears in an ecosystem breaks the web of life.� Next to sprawl, the biggest challenge he faces as a protector of grizzlies is rapidly escalating property prices. In their efforts to buy terrain rich in wildlife, conservation groups are competing against individuals with deep pockets and a desire for second or third homes. “This is why I decided to work for a land trust,� Wolfe says. “As an active conservationist, it is where I think I can make the most difference for the future.� “It would be a tragedy to see the grizzly bear disappear from the lower 48 states,� Lynne Seus says as she watches Little Bart romp in the water in her backyard. “If America loses her great bear, then we lose nature’s mightiest spirit, and no true wilderness remains.� Roger Toll, a Sky contributing editor, writes regularly on Western destinations from his home in Park City, Utah.

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Single and looking for a mate? An animal can be a great pickup tool. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Robert Yau saw pet power in action at a park one day while walking his dog Hershey, and took the concept to the computer, creating Date My Pet (www.datemypet .com). Members post pictures and profiles of themselves as on other Internet meeting and matching sites; they also post pictures and profiles of their animals. Basic memberships are free; more interactive memberships cost no more than $9.95 a month. Does it work? The 14-month-old service has a small membership—a plus for members in big cities, but a minus for those in little towns. Still, Date My Pet has several success stories. There are also some unhappy tales: “I met a nice guy on here but his dog was very untrained and pooped and puked his way around my apartment.� Instead of “caveat emptor,� we say, “cave canem.�—Britta Waller

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The Claws in His Contract  

by Roger Toll for Delta SKY magazine

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