As a small (but thriving) land trust with a unique mission, Vital Ground has to be both selective and strategic to effectively carry out its primary goal of reconnecting isolated fragments of wildlands that are important for grizzly recovery and biodiversity. As such, Vital Ground uses its financial resources and real estate expertise to identify and protect those parcels of private land crucial to the survival of the grizzly.
Acreage size is not the critical determining factor in our conservation endeavors, but rather overall habitat value for the endangered grizzly. We place special emphasis on protecting private lands where grizzly bears reside or could possibly expand, especially spring and fall range habitat; private lands adjoining or adjacent to public lands or existing protected private lands; and linkages between grizzly bear ecosystems.
Vital Ground endeavors to preserve a wildlife legacy for future generations in spite of a rapidly urbanizing society, which has altered the face of North America. We focus on grizzly habitat because the grizzly is nature’s umbrella species and the barometer of a healthy and whole environment. If we can permanently enable the long-term survival and growth of grizzly bear populations, we truly can preserve North America’s wild heritage for our children and beyond.
Vital Ground seeks and accepts donated lands and conservation easements on lands possessing crucial habitat for grizzly and other wildlife. Our goal with every landowner is to build a solid, interactive relationship that will help foster long-lasting and meaningful conservation. We fully recognize the importance of partnerships with other conservation organizations, community groups, and agencies; and believe it to be entirely possible and desirable to preserve the ecological integrity of grizzly range alongside informed human communities and vibrant economies.
Efforts to accomplish our mission include the following approaches:
Wherever we can identify properties comprising good grizzly bear habitat under ownership that can benefit from a voluntary conservation easement, we collaborate with landowners to encourage them to place a conservation easement on their ecologically sensitive land. Donations of conservation easements can impart significant federal income tax and estate planning benefits to the donor, and in instances where the owner may not benefit from a donation, Vital Ground may partially purchase a conservation easement, or team up with other conservation groups or governement entities to support the easement purchase.
Conservation easements permanently protect wildlife habitat and scenic and open space values from the multiple threats of inappropriate residential and commercial development, thus safeguarding a property’s conservation values for generations to come.
Bud Moore, owner of Vital Ground’s first conservation easement property in the Swan Valley of Montana summed it up: “You look out the window and you can see conservation and wildlife values of all kinds right there in front of your eyes. And all those values are intertwined and dependent on each other. I see our conservation easement with Vital Ground as a long-term partnership to try to live a little better with the Earth.”
Where a conservation easement is not a good fit for one reason or another, Vital Ground may also entertain the outright purchase of habitat deemed critical to the health of grizzly populations in specific areas. In these instances, Vital Ground continues to manage the land to benefit grizzlies and other wildlife, possibly seeking an appropriate conservation buyer for the parcel at a later date. Land purchases in these areas often have a direct impact on the recovery rate of an struggling grizzly population.
Underlying both our conservation easement and land purchases, Vital Ground’s goal is to bolster the security of existing protected lands – both public and private – by protecting adjoining habitat. We place a high priority on amplifying the utility of large protected habitats by complementing them with additional projects on private properties in a given area.
Most of our private land projects are adjacent to or adjoin protected national and/or state forests and national parks, or are part of a network of private tracts that link up with other protected acreage. This is especially important for grizzlies because they require vast home ranges and prefer to be solitary during most of the year.
We seek to prevent unnecessary human-bear conflicts, which tend to decimate the bear population. Riverfront properties in undeveloped, scenic areas are highly desirable for recreation, so the threat of subdivision or commercial development looms large in prime locations. Not surprisingly, people and bears share the same views with respect to what is prime real estate. The presence of roads, pavements, pets and pet foods, garbage cans, bird feeders, fruit trees, and noise in the midst of wilderness can spell disaster for resident bears.
When people move in, most of the experienced bears move out. But a few stick around, often the younger males trying to establish their own piece of territory. In areas where multiple vacation home sites spring up in the midst of bear feeding grounds, grizzlies are bound to cause trouble and often are killed as a result.
We work to prevent human-bear conflicts by prioritizing protection of “inholdings”—private land that is located in the midst of protected habitat, but is targeted for residential or commercial development or sale. Unfortunately, these development pressures tend to push land prices up, often preventing direct purchase by a conservation organization. When feasible, Vital Ground seeks the assistance of conservation buyers to protect these critical parcels.
In some instances, we double or triple leverage our land preservation funds through state and federal government matching grants. We also form partnerships with other conservation organizations to leverage our resources. As a result, Vital Ground maintains a solid reputation among peer organizations as a collaborator on partnership projects that help extend the reach of our mission fulfillment.
After Vital Ground stepped up to the plate to support The Kodiak Brown Bear Trust on a key project in Alaska, Executive Director Tim Richardson exalted, “Vital Ground is again coming through as a key partner for Kodiak bear conservation. Being the first group to commit to 1% of the remaining funding shortfall to protect Afognak Island is an act of conservation leadership sure to set a trend in the nonprofit community.”
Jamie Williams, former State Director of The Nature Conservancy of Montana, remarked, “We’re thrilled to partner with an organization like Vital Ground, whose mission to protect grizzly bear habitat so closely coincides with our own. By combining forces, we’ve been able to leverage more money toward direct habitat preservation.”
After an important deal linking protected tracts, Program Director Dave Carr, also of TNC-Montana, observed, “Grizzlies are seasonal migrants. Due to Vital Ground’s knowledgeable support, we’ve been able to secure protection on some of the key riparian corridors and wetlands that provide a direct linkage for grizzlies to roam from the mountains to the prairies.”