Heber City • Bart the Bear knew what it meant to roam the wilds only while playing the role in movies.
Born at a Baltimore zoo in 1977, the Kodiak brown bear ended up leading a life of adventure, travel and even celebrity — performing in more than 35 films alongside the likes of Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah.
Adopted by Doug and Lynne Seus and trained at their Heber City ranch, Bart also promoted Vital Ground Foundation — a nonprofit that protects and restores North America’s grizzly bear populations by conserving wildlife habitat.
Since Bart’s death from cancer in 2000, Bart 2 has continued the movie career — his recent appearance on HBO’s “Game of Thrones” drew raves — and the role of spokesbear for Vital Ground.
“Because of birth circumstances they ended up in a human world. There was nothing we could do about that but give them the best life they could have,” Lynne Seus said. “We could also take what they enable us to do financially in the human world and give it back to their wild brothers.”
Added Doug Seus, Bart’s trainer, agent and best friend: “The wild is where he belonged, but it couldn’t happen. We tried to give him mental and physical stimulation and the best possible life.”
Saving wild places • It would not be an exaggeration to call Bart the Bear the biggest actor of his time. He was, after all, 1,500 pounds and 9½ feet tall.
His 23-year life included daily training on the Seuses ranch in Heber City, work that got him to the stage at the Academy Awards. While he was later nominated for an Oscar for his work in “The Bear,” Bart’s trip to the 1988 event was to appear as a presenter with actor Mike Myers.
Like many other performers, Big Bart used his celebrity to promote a cause — the wild places that he never experienced freely, but undoubtedly held in his soul.
Using money earned from the roles they secured for Bart, the Seuses purchased 240 acres of grizzly habitat on the eastern front of the Rockies in Montana.
The 1990 purchase, designed to protect the important property from being subdivided for development, become the launching point for the Vital Ground Foundation.
That 240 acres has grown to nearly 600,000 acres of grizzly habitat Vital Ground has helped secure as wild in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska and British Columbia. It works with partners and landowners to protect and restore land, which gives more than grizzlies a place to live a wild life.
Originally based in Heber City, the offices for Vital Ground are now located in Missoula, Mont.
With grizzly range in the Lower 48 states roughly 2 percent of what it was 200 years ago, much work remains, said Kevin Rhoades with Vital Ground.
“Since then, the population has declined from 100,000 to 1,700 bears. Vital Ground is dedicated to reversing that trend and is succeeding,” Rhoades said. “For a healthy population, some grizzly bears need as many as 300 square miles to roam.”
‘The means to make a difference’ • Doug Chadwick, a noted biologist, author and conservationist, helped the Seuses come up with the idea of Vital Ground. In the mid-1980s, Chadwick was working on a story about grizzlies for National Geographic.
“I had been hanging out with wildlife managers and biologists. I had lots of statistics and charts. I had studied the myths and legends of bears,” Chadwick said. “I wanted to know what a bear was really like.”
Having seen a picture of Doug Seus riding a bear, Chadwick headed to Heber, knocked on the Seuses’ door and introduced himself.
“Doug shoved me in the pen with Big Bart and stepped out,” Chadwick recalled. “I realized I’d probably just made the biggest mistake of my life.”
Bart ventured over to check out Chadwick while Doug Seus watched from outside the pen.
“He stood up and was looking straight down at me. I looked at the sky and said, ‘This is it, I’m screwed,’ and then he gave me a big lick,” Chadwick said. “And then he started shoving me around. Doug told me to shove him back and I was thinking, ‘That sounds brilliant.’ ”
Chadwick survived, of course, and quickly became enamored with both Bart and the man who called himself the bear’s soul mate.
Later, during a hike in Montana, the men developed the idea for Vital Ground.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Lynne Seus. “For the first time in our life we had some extra money and even though we had planned on using it for retirement, we decided we had the means to make a difference, and we had that means because of Bart.”
As Doug Seus put it, “If we hadn’t moved on that opportunity, it would have become something we regretted for the rest of our lives.”
‘Seeing a paw print’ • The Seuses believe Big Bart fought cancer as long as he did because he knew something to ease the pain of his loss was awaiting his humans.
When Doug Seus took a call from Alaska wildlife officials in early 2000, he was both excited and anxious.
A poacher had killed a grizzly in the interior of Alaska and left two orphan cubs. Would he take them?
The Seuses already had another grizzly, Tank, but couldn’t bring themselves to ignore the cubs — who joined them as Bart 2, or little Bart, and his sister, Honey Bump.
The Seus family includes the three bears and three wolves — all with impressive credentials in movies, magazines and television productions.
In his 13 years, Bart 2 — all 8 feet, 6 inches and more than 1,100 pounds of him — has appeared on film with Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Sam Elliott, Sara Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant while representing, and continuing to help fund, Vital Ground.
That, the Seuses say, is tremendously important to them.
Bears “add a dimension to the outdoors experience that you can only experience in bear country. They take the casualness out of the hike and make you more aware of the entire ecosystem,” Doug Seus said. “Whether you love bears or just the natural world, seeing a paw print redefines your day and, sometimes, your life.”
How to help
The nonprofit Vital Ground Foundation has protected roughly 600,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat in North America. Learn more at http://www.vitalground.org/.
Lights, camera, action
In appearances since the 1970s, animals from Wasatch Rocky Mountain Wildlife in Heber City have been seen in scores of documentaries, commercials, publications from Outdoors to Architectural Digest, television programming and feature films. Among the highlights:
1980s: “Clan of the Cave Bear,” “The Bear” (for which Bart the Bear was recommended by Ernest Gold for an Academy Award in the “special achievement” category.)
1990s: “White Fang,” “Legends of the Fall,” “The Edge”
2000s: “Big Fish,” “Unfinished Life,” “Evan Almighty,” “Into The Wild,” “The Amazing Race”
2010s: “Zookeeper,” “We Bought a Zoo,” “Game of Thrones”
Find a full list of credits at www.bartthebear.com.