Bearing down 

Experts put an eventful–and sometimes fatal–season of bear activity into perspective

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Accessing the genotype information from bear hair can do more than just accurately match a bear to an incident like Soda Butte—it may be the new wave in monitoring grizzly populations. Doctorate candidate Jeffrey Stetz, Katherine Kendall of the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center and Servheen are undertaking a three-year DNA study, which seeks to identify population trends and individual bears by the end of 2011.

But until that technology proves reliable, bear managers continue to rely on GPS tracking. The first collars used radio tracking and only provided managers with a general idea of where bears were a couple times a week at a certain hour, and only in daylight and good weather. GPS tracks the bears roughly every hour, 24 hours a day, no matter what the conditions. Despite the invasive nature of capturing, sedating and collaring bears before releasing them back into the wild, biologists can now better understand bear behavior.

"Now we know that they really behave differently in the dark than during the daytime," says Servheen. "This is probably the biggest advance in technology we have."


Chuck Jonkel adheres to a philosophy he calls "sittin' and whittlin'." When he first started working with polar bears he spent time talking with local communities to try and figure out how they interacted with the species. In a little settlement called Port Severn on the southern tip of the Hudson Bay in northeastern Canada, he stopped some local hunters to find out if he could look at any bear skulls they might have. The locals were suspicious of him as an outsider, Jonkel recalls, and denied that there were even any polar bears nearby.

"Well, Christ, I could see some polar bears over their shoulders," says Jonkel. Finally, the men agreed to meet with Jonkel the next day. But when Jonkel showed up to talk with the hunters they didn't want to talk about bears—they just wanted to talk about Jonkel and how he had gotten through life without a flock of children. Jonkel ignored the question and asked again about the bears, but the locals persisted with talk of babies. Turns out, Jonkel realized, they wanted family planning advice. So, Jonkel talked it through with them the whole day.

"The next day, anything I wanted, they helped me with," he says. "And I call that sittin' and whittlin' because all that time I was whittling a stick."

click to enlarge Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, records the body temperature of an adult female grizzly bear on the Rocky Mountain Front. “We have bears reoccupying habitats now that they’ve been gone from for 100 years,” he says, “but as they reoccupy those places, the people living there start encountering more and more of them.” - PHOTO COURTESY MIKE MODEL
  • Photo courtesy Mike Model
  • Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, records the body temperature of an adult female grizzly bear on the Rocky Mountain Front. “We have bears reoccupying habitats now that they’ve been gone from for 100 years,” he says, “but as they reoccupy those places, the people living there start encountering more and more of them.”

The experience stuck with Jonkel throughout the years, and when it came time to hire bear managers in Montana, he proposed the managers be people who didn't just understand bears, but also understood how to talk with locals on their terms.

"I started telling the state that they needed somebody to represent the bears locally, who knew how to talk with ranchers, knew what a bushel is, and a peck, knew different types of wheat, knew all about the place they are [managing]," he says. "It's gotta be a guy everyone likes, and he's got to drink coffee with folks, and if the neighbor kids need a ride to school they give them a ride. The state kept saying that that's not biologist work. But when you're drinking coffee and talking with a guy who hates grizzly bears, you're doing important work. They finally hired Tim Manley and Mike Madel, who were exactly the right kind of people."

Tim Manley started working for FWP in 1993, and he's seen a major change in attitude toward bears. For example, he recalls a female grizzly he caught on someone's property in the Flathead Valley this summer. It turned out to be the same grizzly he'd caught on the same property a decade before. But this time, things were different.

"Ten years ago they really didn't feel comfortable having grizzlies around," says Manley. "They wanted them gone. They've lost chickens and have had apple trees damaged by grizzlies over the years. But now the chickens have an electric fence around them, he picks his apples so the bears don't get to them, and he doesn't mind having the grizzly bears around. The only reason he called on this one was they have renters in the house next door that have little kids and they were just concerned about the kids."

Bear education appears to be getting better. Recently, a program called the Neighborhood Network popped up as an offshoot of the Blackfoot Challenge. The program provides bear information, activity updates and alerts for various communities encountering bears. Jamie Jonkel says one of the most important aspects of the network is the idea that the solution doesn't always fall to FWP or bear organizations, but within a local community that knows the landscape.

"It's not something we're trying to jam down people's throats," says Jamie Jonkel, "but the idea is that Fish and Game can't have one guy going around telling people what to do. Instead, you get a handful of passionate individuals that are like, 'Fish and Game, we'll show you how to do it.'"

In the past, that might have meant a mass killing of every bear in sight, but these days, it means that when a new family moves into the neighborhood, they get a tutorial from the neighbors on how to store trash or horse feed. It means that, in communities like the Blackfoot Valley, 45 ranchers share knowledge on the best ways to keep attractants under control and that 100 people participate in a phone tree to keep residents updated on bear activity.

In the springs and summers, bear managers are seeing people in their regions frequently assembling for what they call bear socials and bear fairs—a time to drink free beer, eat hot dogs, listen to live music and do some serious talking about how they're going to manage their community for bears. Managers like Jonkel and Servheen insist that, as simple as it sounds, it's these kind of gatherings that instill the power in a community to foster an environment where humans see the value in co-existing with bears, which can, in turn, change everyone's behavior—bears and humans alike.

"What happens is going to be based not on the agencies, and not on the court systems, but on the people who live, work and recreate in bear habitat," says Servheen. "Their decisions will determine the future of bears."

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