GRIZZLIES HAVE BEEN extinct in Utah for nearly a century, but there’s a giant one in Doug Seus’ backyard. When the bear sees Doug, it hurries through an open chain-link gate—and charges. A magpie swoops out of the way. The 1,250-pound bear closes in, stops, and rises to its nine-foot height. At age 78, Doug is still burly, but the bear, now just yards away, could easily knock him off his feet and ragdoll him around. Instead, the giant wraps its arms around Doug, delighted. The grizzly wants to play.
Seus, an animal trainer and a grizzly advocate, steps toward the bear, named Little Bart, and meets his embrace. Little Bart leans in, and they begin to waltz. Dressed in jeans and a red flannel shirt, Doug almost disappears next to the animal. When Little Bart wraps his jaws around Doug’s head, Doug pushes back. “Ahhh,” he says. “No.” Little Bart is getting carried away; Doug smacks his huge shoulders. Little Bart pulls back, releases Doug, and then swats him on the shoulder with a paw, as if to say, You know I was only funnin’.
There’s a good chance that if you’ve seen a wild animal in a movie or on television sometime in the past 40 years, Doug and Lynne Seus trained it in this backyard, outside Heber City, Utah. The couple has taught wolves to howl, raccoons to run up trees, and cougars to yowl on command. Their specialty, though, is the grizzly. They’ve trained four adults, an improbable feat: Bart, Little Bart (or Bart II), Honey Bump, and Tank. The movies The Edge, Evan Almighty, Into the Wild, and Legends of the Fall featured a Seus bear. In Season 3 of Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister leaps into a pit to save Brienne of Tarth from being devoured by Little Bart.
In December, Discovery Channel premiered Man vs. Bear, in which competitors face off against Little Bart, Honey Bump, and Tank in races, barrel-rolling, and other physical challenges. In one episode, Little Bart plays tug-of-war with a 170-pound MMA fighter—and yanks the guy into a pond within 14 seconds. On set, the Seus grizzlies were exemplars of professionalism, says Vincent Cariati, Man vs. Bear’s showrunner. “It wasn’t like you’re dealing with an untamed wild animal,” he adds. “They’re having fun.”
Over the past three decades, the Seuses have worked not only to train grizzlies but also to protect them. In 1990, they founded the Vital Ground Foundation, a nonprofit that has conserved 617,000 acres of private land—an area roughly the size of Olympic National Forest—for wild grizzlies. It has achieved this, in large part, by working with and convincing landowners to establish wilderness sanctuaries. It also purchases lands outright with money that the Seus bears generate in Hollywood and with donations that Doug, Lynne, and the grizzlies help to raise. “It’s astonishing how Doug and Lynne have translated their passion for bears to inspire wildlife enthusiasts across the nation,” says Ryan Lutey, Vital Ground’s executive director.
Vital Ground remains the only nonprofit dedicated to partnering with landowners to protect grizzly habitat. Despite its success, grizzlies no doubt remain in peril, and few people know this more acutely than Doug Seus. “I’m optimistic,” he says, “but it is urgent.”
LITTLE BART, THE LARGEST of the three surviving Seus grizzlies, lives next door to Doug and Lynne in a giant modified doghouse that opens out onto spacious acres of yard; Honey Bump and Tank have their own spreads nearby. The three bears each consume about 30 pounds of raw meat, apples, and carrots a day.
The autumn day I visit, Doug spends an hour with Little Bart, going over the basics: stand, roar, headshake, booty shake. I watch from a lawn chair six feet away, on the other side of a single strand of safety wire. Doug spends anywhere from a few minutes to eight hours a day working with the bears, depending on how playful they’re feeling. “They’re so intelligent,” he says, “that we have to vary the routine to keep them interested.” Through the session, Little Bart’s eyes remain fixed on Doug. It’s as if he’s trying to bridge some gulf between them and at times is frustrated by his inability to share his joy fully.
Doug doesn’t train his bears. “I teach them,” he says. He never carries bear spray or any other defense when he’s with them. They’re family, for one. But even if they weren’t, “the animal knows if a backup is there,” he says. “It has to be a relationship of trust and dignity.” He learned to build this trust through trial and error. He’s respectful but firm, always, and he knows how to anticipate what the bears want. Timing is critical, as is positive affirmation.
In Russia, there are trained circus grizzlies. But “the Europeans use leashes,” Doug explains, along with barriers and muzzles. And there are mishaps. Last October, a 660-pound Russian circus bear attacked its handler during a performance, likely provoked by the audience’s flashing cameras. Another circus employee managed to zap the grizzly with a stun gun before the handler suffered major injuries.
Doug and Lynne, meanwhile, form close, lifelong relationships with their bears. “It’s hard for most of us to get past our fears to see bears for what they really are,” says Doug Chadwick, a founding board member of Vital Ground. “Seus is brave enough to break through and make that connection.”
Doug takes great pains to keep his bears happy. For Game of Thrones, he trailered Little Bart to Los Angeles two weeks before the taping, so that he had time to acclimate. Once the cameras were rolling, Doug kept classical and country music playing to help calm Little Bart. When he performed well, Doug, who was standing above the pit, fed him whipped cream with a long-handled frying pan. “Bart was phenomenal,” said Gwendoline Christie, the actress who played Brienne, after the filming, adding that Little Bart was easier to work with than certain human actors.
After the morning session, Little Bart runs down to a pond to swim and cool off. As Doug and I walk back toward the house, Little Bart tries to keep us from leaving. He picks up a branch and breaks it over his head as if he were crushing a beer can. He’s mugging—clearly, desperately, communicating, Stay a little longer, play a little longer. “They’re the most honest animals in the world,” Doug says.
Doug’s interest in wildlife began when he was young. Growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, he spent much of his free time rambling around the woods. “I touched things,” he says, “which deepened my affinity for nature. Kids have to be able to bring a salamander home, take care of it, feed it.”
In his early 20s, having long felt drawn to the West, he headed to Utah. He met Lynne in 1967, at a hotel restaurant where she was working as a hostess. “His friends called him Charlie Potato,” she recalls. “He had no manners, no money, no morals. I was instantly fascinated.”
In 1971, the couple married in Los Angeles, where Doug had found work finishing concrete. Wanting their lives to be a bit wild, they decided to buy a wolf pup, Kiska, from a local animal trainer and raise it in their backyard. Shortly afterward, the couple decided to decamp from L.A. to Heber City, Utah. Doug took a job at a sawmill and Lynne as a script coordinator for a Park City film company. Broke, they stayed with Lynne’s mother for several months, until they could buy the farmhouse where they still live.
In 1973, Wild Kingdom, a nature and wildlife TV show, happened to come through the area, looking for a wolf to film. Doug, on a whim, showed the crew Kiska. The show not only offered him the job, but it also asked him to care for some other animals—a cougar, a fisher, an owl—that it was filming while in town. For Doug, it was a dream gig. I could do this, he thought. I want to do this.
He and Lynne started training badgers, deer, raccoons, and other critters, given to them by a local trapper. They figured out their methods on the fly and were soon making a good living, never mind that they didn’t, and don’t, have an agent.
Doug had long had a passion for grizzly bears and soon noticed that movie producers always seemed to be wanting one for films. The jaw strength of an adult grizzly is roughly on par with a bull shark’s. The Seuses were undaunted. In 1977, they adopted their first grizzly, Bart I, from a Maryland zoo, which had heard they wanted to raise one. Then, as now, you need a permit to own a bear, but “it was easier” back then, Doug says.
When Bart I was just shy of six weeks old, he was shipped via air freight to Salt Lake City. Doug and Lynne drove to the airport late one night to meet him, with bottles of special high-fat formula that they’d developed. They took Bart home, nursed him, and patted him all night just as they would a newborn child. “He was special,” Lynne says, with a catch in her throat even after all these years.
Training began almost immediately. Lynne says that Doug was “obsessed, persistent, determined, enduring—a unique power that borders on madness.” She was the balance, the cub’s mother. (She and Doug still go out to comfort their bears during thunderstorms.) Bart went on to appear in more than 30 films and TV shows and became a phenomenon. In 1997, the Los Angeles Times speculated that he was Hollywood’s highest-paid animal actor, pulling $10,000 a day. The following year, Bart presented at the Oscars for best sound-effects editing. He held the envelope in his teeth, then, Doug says, dropped it as a joke. Doug had to pick it up and hand it to Mike Myers to announce the winner.
As Bart’s star rose, the Seuses had an idea: capitalize on Bart’s charm to raise funds to protect wild bears. They soon founded Vital Ground and teamed up with grizzly advocates Doug Peacock and Doug Chadwick to bolster their efforts. Their plan succeeded. Actors who had worked with Bart—Anthony Hopkins, Brad Pitt, Steven Seagal—readily joined the fight and donated. Jeff Bridges has referred to the Seuses as “his crazy friends” and praised their efforts to protect “exactly the right places in the Northern Rockies.” In 1989, the Seuses emptied their savings and made what became Vital Ground’s first acquisition: 240 acres of forest and wetlands outside Choteau, Montana. “To be doing something,” Doug says, “instead of just wishing—it was the best feeling.”
Bart I died of cancer in 2000, to the Seuses’ tremendous heartbreak. They’d already adopted a second bear, Tank, but the same year Bart I died, Little Bart and his sister, Honey Bump, came to the Seuses as orphans. An Alaska state trooper had found the 5-month-old cubs after poachers killed their mother. The Seuses began bonding with and training the cubs immediately. Once, Little Bart—missing Alaska, frightened—bit Doug’s hand pretty hard, requiring stitches. “[Little Bart] was a little rough,” Doug admits, “but they come to trust you.”
NOWADAYS, DOUG SPENDS less time on movie sets than on his work with Vital Ground, which is headquartered in Missoula, Montana. During my visit, he starts the day in his living room, calling a family with land near the Mission Mountains. Doug badly wishes to place a section of their property under a protective easement, which would limit various non-bear-friendly development, such as houses or subdivisions, on the land. But purchasing the easement is complicated: Two of the family members are eager to move ahead, but the third, the family patriarch, is dubious. Doug keeps leaving voicemails and passing along messages.
“Tell him I’m here when he’s ready,” he tells one of the man’s relatives, during one of a half-dozen calls.
Doug has been chasing the old man for years. The property is, well, vital. In the fall, bears are drawn out of the Mission Mountains to eat apples in an orchard there, for one last feast before they hibernate. But in the orchard, the bears are among people and thus vulnerable: Human-caused mortality is the number one limiting factor restricting grizzlies’ recovery in the Lower 48.
“The Great Bear is the spirit of the West, and of America,” says Doug. “But our rapacious appetite has caught up with us.”
Life is good for Little Bart and the other Seus bears. But, generally speaking, it’s damned hard to be a grizzly these days. In 1800, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed the Lower 48. By 1975, that number had dived to about 600. Today there are roughly 1,800 bears. But they’re split into six isolated subpopulations. A gauntlet of development—highways, neighborhoods, ranches—prevents any of the subpopulations from reaching one another to breed. And as the human world swells and burns, their populations are at greater risk of blinking out. Slender pathways and buffers, such as the Mission apple orchard, are needed to reconnect and safeguard the scattered bears.
Doug is haunted by the thought of the West without a free-ranging grizzly population. “The Great Bear is the spirit of the West, and of America,” he says. “But our rapacious appetite has caught up with us.” As long as he and Lynne and Little Bart are here, there’s at least one faint path forward. “They have done more to help wild grizzlies than anyone will ever know,” Doug Peacock says. Still, the Seuses would be the first to tell you that more needs to be done.
Vital Ground has an immediate goal of protecting another 188,000 acres of land essential to bridging the stranded subpopulations of wild grizzlies. It’s an ambitious plan, requiring both tremendous money and convincing.
John and Leanne Hayne run a 3,000-acre sheep ranch in Dupuyer, Montana. “The grizzlies have made my life more complicated,” John tells me during a visit. He once had a grizzly kill a ewe right in front of him. “It was over in 10 seconds,” he says. He had to surround half of those 3,000 acres with electric fencing to keep out bears and wolves. He’s not entirely anti-grizzly, though. “I’d sell an easement to Vital Ground if they paid me enough,” he says. How much is hard to say. Land prices are escalating quickly, which deepens Doug’s sense of urgency.
LATE IN THE MORNING at the Seus ranch, an engineer comes by. The BBC show Animal Impossible wants to measure how much force Little Bart generates when he slams a paw on the ground, and the engineer is designing a pressure plate to record it. Even with the Discovery Channel series, “Hollywood doesn’t need us so much anymore,” Doug concedes, grumpily. “They can do stuff with animatrons now.” Projects like this one give him and Little Bart something to do. I feel a tug of sadness watching the whole thing, then remember: This is saving bears, because much of the money that Little Bart raises still goes toward protecting wild grizzlies.
At dusk, Doug and I sit on his porch. After spending time with Little Bart, my sense of scale is all off: The Seus ranch feels dollhouse-size. “Mankind is so greedy,” Doug says. “People are all money crazy now.” He is particularly concerned about the federal government’s recent push, under the Trump administration, to expand logging and mining on public lands, lands upon which wild grizzlies greatly depend. “It’s become sadly economic,” he says, shaking his head.
As far as Vital Ground goes, money for habitat acquisition, about 2 to 3 million dollars a year, still flows in through Little Bart and back into the wild country that he will never see or know. Little Bart is happy, though. After all these years, Doug says, “he and I are learning new things.” A gulf still exists between them, however small, and one always will to some extent. Doug and Little Bart are content trying to close it anyway.
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