Chuck Jonkel learned long ago about the public's deep fascination with bears. Before he switched the focus of his work to the animal in 1959, he saw bears mostly as a nuisance. While working toward his master's degree in zoology at the University of British Columbia, he was dismayed to find black bears ruining his traplines, which he used to catch and study pine martens. But his constant encounters began to intrigue people around him.
"I'd stop somewhere for coffee and three people would run over and want to talk about bears," says Jonkel, a now 80-year-old biologist, bear expert and founder of the Great Bear Foundation. "They're very powerful for people. And that's their burden."
The love-hate feelings humans have for bears started as soon as the two first interacted, explains Jonkel, and it continues today. In fact, a flurry of summer incidents throughout Montana has made the issue of coexisting with bears more prominent than usual.
Multiple bears have been reported in the Rattlesnake area this season, including a bear trying to break into an apartment on Aug. 5. Another bear was trapped in Greenough Park on July 9 when it started getting into garbage. On Sept. 15, in Missoula, a black bear was removed near the intersection of Reserve and Brooks exactly a week after another bear was tranquilized downtown, just off East Broadway. The latter's much-publicized fall from a tree was captured by a Missoulian photographer and featured by media outlets across the country.
The activity has been even more noticeable in other parts of the state. During the second week of September, bear managers had to remove five grizzlies in seven days from the Flathead Valley. On July 24, television personality and zookeeper Jack Hanna was one of five people in Glacier National Park to report pepper-spraying bears while hiking in the park. Yellowstone National Park representatives reported over the summer that policing bear jams has become a top priority for park officials, as they're seeing more and more animals appear on roadsides. One black bear in Gardiner, just outside of Yellowstone, actually learned to open car doors. He'd broken into a dozen vehicles from the last week of August through the first week of September before accidentally getting trapped in a van when the door slid closed behind him.
All this activity has kept Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) busy with about 30 phone calls a day for bears alone—a number that managers often experience in the fall, but that far exceeds the norm for spring and summer.
"We've got a lot of bears this year that are just roaming all over and getting into all kinds of trouble, turning up in all kinds of strange places," says Jonkel. "And we'll probably keep seeing that right up until the snow flies."
Summer was especially tragic in the Yellowstone area. On June 17, a 70-year-old man was killed by a grizzly while walking alone in the Kitty Creek drainage of the Shoshone National Forest near the park's east entrance. On July 28, another man was killed, this time in the Soda Butte Campground just outside the park. The last fatal grizzly bear attack in all of Montana happened in 2001, and before that, in 1986.
The increase in reported bear-related incidents raises obvious concerns over why, whether anything is to blame, and what bear managers plan to do to address the situation. Jonkel has heard all of the emotionally charged questions and, like many experts, preaches patience. The philosophy behind bear management hasn't changed much over the years. What has changed is the increase in bear and human populations, and the likelihood that seasons like this one will continue.
"The job is getting bigger as the bears move into new areas," says Jonkel. "There's some really great work going on, but there are still ranchers who don't want to cooperate and some bears still doing everything wrong...Bears have a lot of baggage."
One of the first misunderstandings with bears occurred when naturalist George Ord took the term "grizzly," meaning gray-haired, to mean "grisly," and stuck the bear forever with the Latin name horribilis. That was in 1815, a decade after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journeyed west into a landscape populated by an estimated 50,000 grizzly bears. In the years that followed, western expansion and a general conquering attitude toward nature led to the death of enough bears that 31 of the 37 grizzly populations recorded in 1922 were killed off by 1975. That was the year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which placed them under federal protection. In 1981, the Fish & Wildlife Service took the next step and hired University of Montana graduate Chris Servheen to spearhead grizzly bear recovery in the lower 48 states.
Servheen's efforts proved successful, and grizzly populations gradually rebounded. The 600 grizzlies in Yellowstone and the 800 in the Glacier and Bob Marshall ecosystem are the two largest populations in Montana, and they're about three times as large as they were 30 years ago. Not only that, but because grizzlies are federally protected, they have begun to safely move out of the mountains and into new areas.
In the last five years, in areas like Choteau, Servheen has seen grizzlies moving past the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front farther and farther to the east of Highway 89. Grizzlies are showing up around Fort Benton and other parts of the eastern Montana prairies and sagebrush landscapes. As they enter agricultural valleys, food sources like berries and bark become scarce. The shortage makes livestock predation and ransacking of grain more common.