Jack Hanna's farm on the banks of Flathead Lake is a fleeting who's-who of the grizzly bear conservation world on a recent Friday evening. Everyone from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Jeff Hagener to nonprofit Vital Ground Foundation Executive Director Gary Wolfe is present. State fiddle champ Tiffany Boucher is playing "Rocky Top," Hanna's favorite tune. Bear biologists mingle with Bigfork locals and high-rolling donors over a ranch-style dinner. Rumor has it Sharon Stone is somewhere in the crowd.
Hanna himself lingers on the fringes of the 2013 Grizzly Bear Rendezvous, an annual fundraiser put on by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Foundation. This is the group's fifth year organizing the event, and Hanna's fifth year hosting. One would expect the booths and videos and bear spray practice range to be the main attractants, or at least the cavalcade of experts ready to share stories from the field. But the crowd is most interested in the event's host.
Hanna refuses to use the word celebrity to describe himself. "I don't see myself as one of those," he says. But droves of people gravitate to the edge of his lawn, photographs in hand, waiting for an autograph. Hanna poses for smartphone photos and accepts a loaf of banana bread from a woman who says she met him at last year's rendezvous. She's got the photo to back her claim, and Hanna signs it with a smile. Just a few hours ago, he got a call from the grounds at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, where he now serves as director emeritus. Justin Bieber was on the other end of the line, requesting a quick chat.
Ask the nationally renowned animal adventurer and he'll tell you the night isn't about Jack Hanna. It's about the grizzly, about celebrating its recovery and ensuring there's enough money to continue the conservation efforts that have gotten the species this far. Whether or not you're an animal lover, he says, it's important that "our kids and their kids and their kids" have an opportunity to understand and appreciate threatened or endangered species.
"As I tell everybody, the grizzly is an icon species," Hanna says, taking a break from the crowd at an unoccupied table. "You have the elephant in Africa, you have the lion in Africa, you have the panda in China, you have the tiger in Asia. You see what I'm talking about? ... If you can't do something for the icon species, you've got a big problem."
Hanna's farm rests on the skirts of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, where the bears have made a striking comeback in recent decades. In 2004, biologists estimated the grizzly population at 765; more recent estimates put that number close to 950. GPS data tracked one bear swimming across Flathead Lake in 2011, just two years after another bear from the NCDE wandered as far east as Fort Benton. Federal officials published a five-year draft management plan for grizzlies in the NCDE this spring, a critical step if that particular population is to ever be delisted.
So far, 2013 has been a quiet year on the bear front. FWP's Jamie Jonkel, manning a booth in Hanna's garage, has heard of a few grizzlies wandering south of Interstate 90. Mike Madel, the agency's bear expert on the Rocky Mountain Front, knows of some bears pushing east along the Marias River. Neither have responded to any serious reports of human-bear conflicts yet.
Tim Manley on the Flathead has been using a high-tech automated trap this summer, the one built by Missoula inventor Ryan Alter and tested in the field by Jonkel last year. He's had a few unfortunate developments in his corner of the state, namely the shooting deaths of two separate grizzlies in the Flathead Valley in May. Manley's trap is on display nearby. It's almost as popular an attraction as Hanna.
"The finest grizzly people in the country are here tonight," Hanna says, waving his hand across the crowd. "You can't get better than this when it comes to promoting or talking about grizzlies."
Last year's rendezvous drew nearly 200 people and raised roughly $70,000. Conservationist and media coordinator Susan Reneau says she was expecting about 170 people tonight. That number quickly ballooned to about 260, requiring extra food and additional seating. Reneau hopes the evening brings in $100,000.
Hanna sees delisting on the horizon for grizzlies in Montana. Bald eagles reached that benchmark, as did wolves. He acknowledges there's a faction of the environmental community that balks at the concept of lifting federal protections on grizzlies. Delisting of the Yellowstone population led to a protracted lawsuit and relisting two years later. "What people don't understand," Hanna says, "is that when you take an animal off the endangered species list, it's the greatest thing in the world. You don't want to keep an animal on the endangered species list forever, 'cause what's that mean? It's going down the tubes."
People continue to file up to Hanna for autographs and small-talk. He shows one man a few photos from his phone, images of goats in the Middle East climbing trees. Fox News interviewed him about the goats earlier this month, referring to Hanna as an animal "expert"another title he abhors. Hanna's chatter is all over the map, but he keeps circling back around to grizzlies, to wolves, to the need to "work together" to preserve what our own species has put at risk. Later, he'll address the whole crowd, encouraging donors to open their checkbooks. For now, Hanna continues to flinch at the word celebrity, all the while recognizing the importance of having one on the side of an icon species.
"The world is different," he says. "We as man created this mess, so we have to take care of the mess we created ... The animals were here before we were, so let's take care of them."This story was updated Monday, July 22 to correct Susan Reneau's title.