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Restoring Grizzly Habitat in the Northwest

Hey Bear Partners with Vital Ground Foundation

A "jewel of a meadow,” Bismark Meadows is a key land project Vital Ground Foundation worked on for nearly 20 years to conserve and protect. PHOTO COURTESY OF VITAL GROUND

By Tucker Harris

50 years ago there were less than 1,000 grizzlies in the Lower 48. Today, there are more than 2,000, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Vital Ground Foundation and Hey Bear are helping protect bear habitat.

“It’s really a conservation success story,” Kevin Rhoades, Vital Ground’s recurring donation program director said. “But, the thing is, that land between the recovery zones determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service back in 1993, there hasn’t really been an effort to conserve those lands until the last 20 to 30 years.”

Vital Ground Foundation’s mission is just that: to protect and restore North America’s grizzly populations for future generations by conserving wildlife habitat and by supporting programs that reduce conflicts between bears and humans. 

Hey Bear is a quality accessory and apparel brand helping support organizations with aligning missions: to provide awareness, education and resources for humans to better coexist with bears. Each year, a portion of Hey Bear’s revenue goes to a chosen organization. This year’s partnership is with Vital Ground. 

Vital Ground Foundation’s overarching vision is to protect wildlife habitat and prevent conflicts in the most critical locations across the Northern Rockies and Inland Northwest. GRAPHIC COURTESY OF VITAL GROUND FOUNDATION

“Conservation has always been a part of my backbone since I was young,” Rhoades said. “And I’ve always had that ethic to conserve—whether it’s grizzly bears or even things like the gray wolf, that’s always been something I’ve been into.”

However, conservation efforts aren’t cheap. 

“Land is expensive,” he said. “So we have all these different sources of income to help provide for the work we do on the ground.”

That’s where Hey Bear comes in. As a business partner to Vital Ground, Hey Bear has raised more than $1,000 since June of this year to give back to Vital Ground. 

“Vital Ground is an exceptional organization to work with,” Conner Clemens, Hey Bear’s brand manager said. “We work well together because Hey Bear is the educational resource for information about bear safety, and Vital Ground is out in the field making sure that the bears and humans are able to coexist.”

Two of Hey Bear’s mission pillars match with Vital Ground’s: Awareness and Coexistence.

“It’s good synergy,” Rhoades said. “I would say we probably match more with our alignment with what we’re trying to do than any other business partners we have.”

One particular land conservation project Hey Bear is proud to help support through their partnership with Vital Ground is Bismark Meadows. 

“Bismark Meadows is this wonderful jewel of a meadow in Idaho’s Panhandle,” Rhoades said. “When we first got our eyes on that land 20 years ago, it was multiple parcels owned by different landowners.” 

Vital Ground has slowly completed deal after deal to finally close on the project almost 20 years later this past Spring. At 1,000 acres of meadows and wetlands, Bismark Meadows is a key grizzly habitat for building a connection from southwestern Canada to Montana’s Cabinet Mountains, to Washington’s North Cascades, and to Idaho’s Bitterroot Ecosystem.

Habitat loss is certainly the largest threat for any animal, Rhoades said, but particularly for the grizzly bear as they’re already somewhat isolated in Yellowstone, Glacier National Park and Montana’s Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.

“When you’ve got people moving here in droves, and people who want a piece of paradise, they buy a big lot,” Rhoades said. “From garbage problems, to hobby chickens, to leaving dog food on the porch, just all those sorts of potential for conflicts increases with more people moving in. That’s why it’s so important that groups like [Vital Ground] are conserving these big chunks of land.” 

Kevin Rhoades from Vital Ground Foundation joined Hey Bear at the Big Sky Community Day event in July of 2022. PHOTO BY TUCKER HARRIS

We can’t stop people from moving to this paradise, but we can help conserve land with nonprofits such as Vital Ground and help raise awareness and educate those in bear country. Hey Bear is a great educational resource for new land and homeowners, providing resources for how to store trash, protect your pets and stay aware. 

“We are so proud that our Hey Bear sales are able to help fund the efforts for Vital Ground to continue their work for long lasting bear biodiversity,” Clemens said. 

Bears are not inherently migratory by nature, Rhoades said. However, as the grizzly population has continued to grow, some bears are getting displaced, and younger adolescent grizzlies are starting to venture out and explore due to reaching capacity populations on isolated land.

“The hope,” Rhoades said, “is that there’s enough protection of private lands in between: Whenever they cross highways and such, that they can get there safely with opportunities to connect with other bears.” 

Hey Bear invests in organizations like Vital Ground to support their long-term mission of connecting ecosystems. When you support, shop and shout “Hey Bear!” you’re also giving back to a nonprofit who makes a positive impact on the great bruins in our backyard.  

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