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Real bears get a helping hand from Hollywood


It’s a long way from the cold, rainy valleys of northwestern Montana's Cabinet Mountains to the bright lights of Hollywood. But they are both bear country, in very different ways.

Hollywood is about myths — taking old myths and digging them deeper. Grafting on new, odd branches to existing myths.

Doug Seus and his most famous movie bear, Bart.

Hollywood plays to the mythology of bears.  A Hollywood bear did in Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall and menaced Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge. More recently, a Hollywood bear snarled in front of 10 million viewers worldwide, in the opener of Game of Thrones on HBO.

Those Hollywood bears are the product of Doug and Lynn Seus, who have made a career of training grizzly bears for the movies. These bears, with trademarked names like Bart, Honey Bump and Tank, have eaten more Oreo cookies than huckleberries.

The bears of the Cabinet Mountains look similar but act different. They have no sense of at all for the limelight. I’ve been roaming here 25 years and seldom see more than a scratched up tree or tracks in the trail mud. Small wonder, since the grizzly population of that mountain range was probably below 15 bears before conservation measures began taking hold.

This time of year, what’s left of them Cabinet grizzlies leave their dens in the snowy alpine and go to scrounge the sprouting grass and moldering winterkills of the Yaak, Fisher, Kootenai and Bull River valleys.

But Hollywood bears and Cabinet Mountain bears have more in common than ancestry.  Nearly 25 years ago, Doug Seus joined with Montana biologist Doug Chadwick to create Vital Ground. It’s a land trust that focuses on conserving private land that provide key “linkage” habitat for grizzly bears. Sues’ bears have become ambassadors for habitat conservation.

Since its founding in 1990, Vital Ground—working in partnership with many organizations—has helped to protect and enhance nearly 600,000 acres of wildlife habitat in Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and British Columbia, and is involved in an effort to protect and restore the few remaining Gobi grizzly bears in Mongolia.

As Chadwick says, it’s not about protecting the most acreage; it’s about protecting the right acres. In northwestern Montana, the “right acres” are those lush lowlands where bears spend their spring days.

Seus’s bears are smart enough to learn to act; the wild bears are smart enough to skirt around the ranches and stump farms that historically dominated the valleys of northwest Montana. But subdivisions are another order of magnitude – essentially mine fields that could spell the end of the struggling Cabinet Range bear population.

Over the past years, the movies have changed a lot. We’ve got 3-D and Surround Sound, DVDs and on-line streaming. The valleys of the Cabinet Mountain Ecosystem have changed too. Acres of former timberlands have been “converted” to summer homes and remote getaways.  But thanks to Vital Ground, some of the key lowland habitat have also remained natural.

Me, I like the movies. But the big screen is mighty small compared to the real woods and the real bears.

Image: Doug Seus and his most famous movie bear, Bart. Credit: Vital Ground.

Ben Long is a father, conservationist and outdoorsman in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media.