Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Walking Bear Comes Home: A Tribute to Dr. Charles Jonkel


Dr. Charles "Chuck" Jonkel (photo by Eric Bergman)
“Bears are a very powerful symbol. We can learn a lot from bears.” – Chuck Jonkel

I learned a lot from Chuck Jonkel, the grizzled, gruff, inspiring bear biologist, teacher, activist and conservationist who spent so much time around wild grizzlies that he came to actually resemble the Great Bears in many ways.  He is the guy I always turned to when I had questions about grizzly bear biology, ecology, behavior and management.

Last night, April 12, 2016, Dr. Charles “Chuck” Jonkel died at the age of 85.

A co-founder and scientific advisor to the The Great Bear Foundation in Missoula, and founder of Missoula’s annual International Wildlife Film Festival, Jonkel was a pioneer in the research of black bears, grizzly bears and polar bears. He was known as one of the “fathers” of bear research, and part of what is sometimes called the “grizzly bear biology fraternity” along with Frank and John Craighead, David Mattson and Mark Shaffer. In 1966, Jonkel was hired by the Canadian Wildlife Service to conduct the first ever field studies of polar bears in the arctic. Jonkel’s monumental Border Grizzly Project, launched 40 years ago in Montana, was the most comprehensive study of grizzlies and their habitat ever conducted, and shaped critical habitat management and protection efforts that helped grizzly bears recover. After retiring as a wildlife biology professor at the University of Montana, Jonkel continued teaching courses for the Glacier Institute and elsewhere, helping people better understand bears and how to live cooperatively with grizzly bears to reduce bear-human conflicts and ensure the protection and conservation of grizzlies.

Jonkel was an advisor to the Great Grizzly Search, a collaborative effort by eight conservation and scientific groups to try and document the presence of grizzlies within the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. As part of that effort, Jonkel once persuaded me to go on one of the most wild, crazy and interesting adventures of my life -- a five-day journey that entailed swimming, hiking, and snowshoeing to the high country during a time of extreme avalanche danger to dig out a bear's den and gather hair samples. (I wrote about the adventure here: Into the Bear's Den.)

Unlike many scientists, Jonkel was not afraid to passionately fight for the protection of bears and their habitat, and express his spiritual connection to the Great Bears. Working with Native Americans, he helped revive a time-honored spring tradition of welcoming bears out of hibernation with what has become an annual Bear Honoring ceremony held by The Great Bear Foundation -- but all are encouraged to revive the tradition in their own way, which I have done.

Jonkel influenced generations of bear biologists, students, conservationists and others, and his legacy also lives on in his son, Jamie Jonkel, who is a bear biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

I, for one, am forever grateful to Chuck Jonkel for all he has done to help create awareness and understanding of, and help conserve the healthy, wild grizzly and black bear populations we are so fortunate to have in Montana and elsewhere.

May he forever walk among the Great Bears he so loved.

To learn more about Dr. Charles “Chuck” Jonkel, check out the documentary produced by The Great Bear Foundation and Salish Kootenai College: “Walkng Bear Comes Home: The Life and Work of Charles Jonkel.”   

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Gun Incident

It's not everyday you have a gun pulled on you, even in Montana.

My son Cory and I pulled into a small parking lot near a lake in the Seeley-Swan Valley today where we planned to canoe and fish. There was a guy standing near a big pickup who seemed to be glaring at me as I was getting ready to unstrap and unload my canoe. Eventually he walked over and introduced himself as Ken Liston. He asked if my name is Dave Stalling.

"Yes. Do I know you?" I asked.
"You're the wolf-loving, tree-hugger who insulted me online," he said.

Uh-oh.

Then I remembered. He was a participant in a recent discussion regarding wolves on a Facebook page run by a local nonprofit hunter-angler conservation organization. He kept posting common lies and misconceptions about wolves to which I responded with science-based facts. (No, the reintroduced wolves are not a different, larger, more "vicious" subspecies from what used to live here. No, they are not "decimating" our elk herds. No, they are not after our children. No, they are not associated with Muslims or the Communist Party.)  He is the type who responded with intelligent, insightful comments such as, "You're not a real hunter. You're not a real Montanan. You're a libtard."

At one point, he suggested anyone not born in Montana should have their place of origin tattooed on their forehead and then be removed from the state.

I gave up and called him an idiot.

"Ah, yes, I remember you," I said. "The guy who wants to tattoo people's foreheads and boot them out of Montana?"
"That's me," he said. "You insulted me."
"Yes, I did," I replied. "I think I called you an idiot?"
"Yes," he said. "I bet you don't have the balls to say that to my face!"
"Do you really, seriously think that anyone not born in Montana should have their place of origin tattooed on their forehead and then be removed from the state?" I asked.
"Yes, I do," he said.

"Well then, you do seem like an idiot," I responded.
"And from your hat, I can tell you are a fucking libtard," he said.
(I was wearing my Montana Wildlife Federation hat.)

I asked him to leave me alone.

"I'm with my son," I said. "We are going fishing. Please go away."

He got close up in my face in a very intimidating and threatening manner and proceeded to insult me. I felt trapped between him and my car. I got pretty nervous and asked him several times to back off. He only got more aggressive and threatening. I placed the palm of my hand on his face, holding his head like Tom Brady might grasp a deflated football, and shoved him away from me.

"Leave me alone!" I said again. "Go away."

He pulled a handgun out from a side holster (hidden under his jacket) and pointed it at me. It looked like a .45 caliber.

"Whoa!" I said. "Are you seriously pulling a gun out on me? My son is here (Cory was very scared). Knock it off asshole. Go away."

He dropped the gun to his side and said (seriously, he really did say this):

"Touch me again and I will shoot you. I'm too old to fight and too young to die."

"Wow! Did we just enter into a John Wayne movie?" I asked. "You really are a fucking idiot, aren't you? I will not touch you if you put your toy away and get the fuck out of here."

He put his toy away and got out of there. I called 911 and reported the incident and gave the operator a description, make and model of his truck, his license plate number and the direction he drove off.

While still on the 911 call, he returned and parked his truck near me. He got out and offered me a beer as an apparent peace offering.
"We're better than this," he said.
"No, you're not," I replied.
I informed him the police were on the way.
He left again.

While waiting for the police, I missed a phone call from a number I did not recognize. Assuming it might be the police, I called the number back.

It was him.

He again made a peace offering.

"How did you get my number?" I asked.
"I have my intelligence sources," he said.

The police apparently pulled him over, and eventually arrived to separately get my version of the story and then Cory's version. They were very professional and nice. They asked if I wished to pursue any charges against the guy. I said no. 

Throughout the incident, I kept reassuring Cory that everything was okay, and he kept assuring me that he was okay. But at one point he did say, "Dad, you really shouldn't threaten and cuss at someone when they point a gun at you -- you should cower a little bit."

He has a point.

He also said, "Be careful what you say to people online; you might meet them in person sometime."
After that, we spent a lovely afternoon on the lake, fishing. The worst part of the day? We didn't catch any fish.  

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Keeping The Badger-Two Wild

Badger-Two Medicine, Photo by Tony Bynum
I first ventured into the Badger-Two Medicine area when I was a troubled, struggling young man fresh out of the Marine Corps in 1986. It was there where I encountered my first wild grizzly, caught my first wild cutthroat, and killed my first wild mule deer. Good, wild medicine, indeed!

Last week, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the cancellation of oil and gas leases held by a company named Solenex within the Badger-Two Medicine, helping ensure the place remains forever wild. It’s a sweet victory in a long, ongoing battle that is not yet over. As Jamie Williams of The Wilderness Society puts it: “It is a turning point in the decades-long fight to protect the Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana. The Interior Department recognizes that the Badger is simply too sacred and too wild to drill. The cultural heart of the Blackfeet Nation deserves protection and respect.”

Ten years ago while working for Trout Unlimited I assisted a coalition of local hunters, anglers, ranchers, outfitters, businessmen and tribal leaders in a successful effort to protect a significant chunk of the Rocky Mountain front from gas and oil development, fairly close to the Badger-Two Medicine area. Working as a professional conservationist I had to be cautious about using emotional arguments, about calling a place “sacred,” but instead focused on the importance of hunting, fishing, clean water and wildlife to the economy. Being sacred is no longer enough to save a place; It has to be one form of human commodity or another. But when a local man from Choteau named Stoney Burke was accused of being “emotional” about places like the Badger-Two Medicine Area he pounded his fist on a table and shouted, “You’re goddamn right I’m emotional – if you can’t be emotional about a place like this then what the hell can you be emotional about?” He compared putting roads and gas wells along the Front to permanently scarring his daughter’s face. When someone mentioned that Forest Service lands are managed for multiple use, and so gas and oil development should be allowed, Stoney said, “Multiple use doesn’t mean you take a crap in your kitchen.”

Elk, bighorns, badgers, wolverines, lynx, mountain lions, wolves and an abundance and diversity of other wildlife thrive on this land. Clear, clean rivers sustain some of the last remaining healthy populations of Westslope cutthroat trout. Grizzlies still wander out onto the plains like they did when Lewis and Clark came through. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared it the “top one percent” of wildlife habitat remaining in the Continental U.S. It’s long been sacred ground to the Blackfeet Nation. Much of it has been permanently protected from gas and oil development.

Unfortunately, the 130,000-acre Badger-Two Medicine area – which borders Glacier National Park, The Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Blackfeet Nation – remains threatened. In 1981, the Department of the Interior began issuing oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine without full environmental review and consulting the Blackfeet people, violating laws that require they do so. Since then, some of the leases have been relinquished voluntarily by energy interests. However, a handful of companies have declined offers to buy-out or swap their leases for holdings in less sensitive areas. One of those companies, Solenex, filed suit in 2013, demanding access to their highly-contested lease area, precipitating the need to rid Badger-Two Medicine of leases once and for all. The recent cancellation of the Solenex lease is a promising step in that direction.

The Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance, made up of a diversity of local hunters, anglers, businessmen and other citizens, has been helping the Blackfeet Nation fight this battle since 1984, along with the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society and several hunting and fishing conservation organizations. As the newly-hired western Montana field representative for the Montana Wildlife Federation, I look forward to re-engaging in this important effort to protect this unique and wild place.

While working along the Front a decade ago, I became acquainted with Chief Earl Old Person, Chief of the Blackfeet Nation. One time, while eating breakfast together at the Two Medicine Cafe in East Glacier, I shared with the Chief some personal struggles. He suggested a few remedies; one of them was the Badger-Two Medicine Area. “Go there,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”

I did. And I’ve gone back time and time again – backpacking, hunting, fishing and freely roaming the wilds. We need to ensure that people will always have that opportunity. By working together, we can all help achieve the vision of the Glacier-Two Medicine Alliance: “A child of future generations will recognize and can experience the same cultural and ecological richness that we find in the wild lands of the Badger-Two Medicine today.”