From Chicago to Montana, An Unlikely Conservation Partnership Bears Fruit

Grizzly bear mother and cub in Glacier National Park
In an area of the Selkirk Mountains near several Vital Ground projects, wildlife biologists in Washington state recently collared a female grizzly for the first time in 40 years. Data from the mother bear's movements will help inform future habitat conservation efforts in the Selkirks, where an estimated 70-80 grizzlies endure.

Brookfield Zookeepers Walk on Vital Ground, Continue Support of Wildlife Habitat Conservation

A big-city zoo in the Midwest might seem an odd candidate to save the rugged wilds of the northern Rocky Mountains. But that’s exactly what the keepers of Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo have done for the last 10 years. Earlier this summer, two of them finally got to see the impact of their work first-hand.

The Brookfield chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) has partnered for the past decade with Vital Ground. Through annual spaghetti dinners, the chapter has raised more than $80,000 to support conservation of grizzly bears, Canada lynx, wolverines and many other species that most Chicagoans will only see in captivity at Brookfield or another zoo.

On their June trip to Montana, however, zookeepers Christy Mazrimas-Ott and Dawn Sohr watched through binoculars as a grizzly sow and two cubs foraged beneath a mountain pass in Glacier National Park. They saw mountain goats, moose, bighorn sheep and eagles. An avid birder, Sohr added a handful of new species to her life list. And alongside Vital Ground staff, they toured several of the crucial habitats they have helped protect.

“The opportunity to see how our spaghetti dinner fundraiser is making a difference for grizzlies and the wildlife in Montana made me proud to be a member of the Brookfield AAZK Chapter,” said Mazrimas-Ott, the senior large carnivore keeper at Brookfield. “Spotting the mom grizzly with her two cubs across the valley on the other side of the mountain was incredible. As a bear keeper, the partnership between Brookfield AAZK and Vital Ground is very important to me.”

A Decade of Dinners

Silent Auction Items
Dinner guests bid on auction items. (Photo courtesy of Brookfield AAZK)

Before the thrill of a wild grizzly sighting, there was excitement in the Brookfield air this April when the AAZK chapter held its annual spaghetti dinner. Through ticket sales and a grizzly-themed silent auction, this year’s event raised $9,700 in support of wildlife conservation in the Northern Rockies. The effort raised the chapter’s total conservation impact to more than $80,000 contributed over the last decade.

“The 10-year partnership that Brookfield AAZK has had with Vital Ground has been quite amazing,” said Diana Tomasiewicz, a chapter member who organizes the annual dinners. “Each year we find that more and more of our guests are connecting to the organization. They know it’s Brookfield AAZK’s Spaghetti Dinner, but they also know who Vital Ground is and what their conservation efforts are in the wild. It is quite rewarding to know that not only are we raising funds for Vital Ground, but we are also raising the conservation awareness of our dinner guests who live in our urban environment. That is a win-win and is exactly what our membership strives to achieve.”

Witnessing Impact

As dedicated as the Brookfield AAZK’s membership has been over their decade of support, Mazrimas-Ott and Sohr strengthened their commitment to conservation by feeling its impact on the ground. They toured several Vital Ground sites in western Montana, starting with the Ninemile Project, a conservation acquisition protecting safe passage for wildlife under Interstate 90 and between the Ninemile and Bitterroot mountain ranges.

“I’m so impressed with the money that our spaghetti dinner has been able to raise for Vital Ground,” said Sohr. “It is sometimes a challenge to feel that we as keepers make a difference with our wild areas, but having boots down on projects like Ninemile really solidifies how every little bit helps.”

They also walked the Wild River corridor in Montana’s far northwestern corner, where Vital Ground and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative are converting a proposed subdivision into key linkage habitat along the Kootenai River.

“Being able to stand on the site of the Wild River project that we helped support was amazing,” said Mazrimas-Ott. “Knowing that it was almost a development and now it will be protected for wildlife to thrive is incredible. We saw many birds at the site and evidence of large mammals making day and night beds in the grass.”

Seeing the Big Picture

The Brookfield zookeepers capped their visit with a hike in Glacier National Park alongside Vital Ground trustee and veteran naturalist Douglas Chadwick. Beyond the thrill of spotting a foraging grizzly family through their binoculars, the trio bonded over their inquisitive approach to the natural world, stopping often to identify everything from scat to birdsong, and to reflect on the importance of protecting habitat beyond the invisible boundaries of national parks and designated wilderness areas.

Thanks to strong support from the Windy City and beyond, Vital Ground is doing just that, having now helped protect and enhance close to 620,000 acres of wildlife habitat. The organization recently launched the One Landscape Initiative to conserve 188,000 particularly crucial private-land acres that connect existing habitat for grizzlies and other wildlife, helping build a linked landscape from the Yellowstone and Grand Teton areas in Wyoming north through Glacier National Park, the Idaho Panhandle and southwestern Canada.

“We’ve got a planet to save in a time of unprecedented environmental pressures,” Chadwick summarized. “The One Landscape strategy is a big step toward securing a future for one of the most intact, wildlife-rich, and lovely regions left.”

For the Midwestern zookeepers whose passion for conservation extends far beyond their own region, that’s reason to keep chipping in, one plate of pasta at a time.

Learn more and contribute to the One Landscape Initiative today!

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