Deconstructing Grizzly 

Film festival highlights the kinder, gentler side of bears

Grizzly bears have a special meaning for Montanans, particularly graduates of the University of Montana where the Griz loom tall over their Big Sky rivals. But for all the roaring, chanting, and pride fights, how many of the faithful Griz would know what to do if they came to face to face with a live version of old Monte?

Andrew Van Eck, an undergraduate wilderness biology major at the University of Montana, thinks not many. Which is why he’s organized the Big Bear Film Festival to educate Missoulians of all walks about the fatal misconceptions that people have of bears.

“Bears,” he says, “are the ultimate omnivore.” Responding inappropriately can be deadly. And so Van Eck has chosen five films for the festival that represent the kinder, gentler side of what one of the videos calls the “exaggera[tion] of this fierce image.”

The idea for the festival came from Van Eck’s own research on bears in the Glacier National Park area. All it took was a little encouragement from one of his professors and he was off and running. Six weeks ago the festival was merely a hope; starting Friday evening it will be a reality. The festival which will take place at the Crystal Theater on Friday and Saturday evenings will include two hours of videos and a talk from Great Bear Foundation founder Dr. Charles Jonkel who will speak on how to act if and when you come in contact with a bear.

Though Missoulians often find their lives and those of the great land predator overlapping, Van Eck’s inspiration comes more from incidents such as the one that occurred in Glacier National Park two weeks ago when a man was attacked by a black bear after playing dead. Van Eck believes that a proper understanding of the motivations of bears and the physical signs that they display could prevent that from happening in the future.

Van Eck chose the five festival films from a group of over 15 bear films. He sought films that were “a little less scientific, and more entertainment” so as to reinforce the idea that bears, too, have personality and are not merely indiscriminate killers. The films he came up with cover a range of sub-species of brown bear, including the grizzly and Kodiak bear, as well as polar bears. The environments in which one sees these vary from Siberia to Alaska, Norway to British Columbia.

The films, donated by the International Wildlife Film Festival, do indeed show the friendlier side of bears—playing, nursing their young, and sharing, when possible, the wealth of food that these remote areas have. The filmmakers have not shied away from showing aggression (even including some scenes of large male bears eating cubs), but the aggression is clearly shown to derive from hunger or the female bear’s instinct to protect her cubs at all costs.

Though this maternal motivation is the one hikers may be most familiar with, it is one that is commonly misperceived. As the films show again and again, the female bear, sensing danger for her cubs, will run after the threat, roar, put the fear of death in the would-be attacker, and then, as the other bear starts to run away, will turn to her side, showing her satisfaction that the threat is gone and she can return her attention to her cubs. Very little physical contact is necessary to get her point across.

Most of the films track a group of bears as they encounter the various impediments to their survival that occur throughout the year. One of these is weight. Bears need to have enough fat to survive six months of hibernation; this may mean eating as much as 4,000 salmon in a summer for a family of three, as bears in Alaska will.

Stopping a bear from getting their share of food will understandably put him in an unhappy mood, as has been evidenced of late in western Montana. With early springs and late frosts, the supply of low-level berries is not adequate this summer, Jonkel says, leading some bears to come down to see what they can find in the way of human food. So, in his talk preceding the screening of the films, Jonkel will also address what homeowners can do to protect themselves and the bears that come to visit.

In the end, in the course of bear-people interactions, the odds on the bears are not good. As on Kodiak Island in Alaska, where a human has never been killed by a bear but bears are killed at the rate of 10-12 a year, humans wield a more immediate and deadly power. Though it’s impossible to understand the fear one feels upon an encounter with a Kodiak bear, or any other bear, wildlife biologists and bear lovers feel that a better understanding of bears as individuals would lead to fewer unfortunate encounters all around.

The Big Bear Film Festival takes place at the Crystal Theater on Friday, July 14 and Saturday, July 15 at 7 p.m. Donations of $6 for adults and $2 for children and seniors will be given to the International Wildlife Film Festival.

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