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.”   

6 comments:

  1. Chuck was a great man and teacher and a friend to any one who shared his passion not only for bears but for true wilderness, Rest well my friend..

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  2. I am so glad to have had him for a teacher and then to become friends. He had such great stories. RIP Chuck.

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  3. Chuck was one of the finest human beings I've ever known. He did so much for our world, and so much for me. He will be missed, even though his legacy lives on.

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  4. Research Pioneer, Champion for Bears, I feel fortunate to have met you Chuck. You will be missed.

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  5. Thank you for your wonderful piece on Chuck and those who added their comments. As someone who also took some of Chucks wonderful bear courses and spoke to him about many wild life issues, he was truly remarkable, unique irreplaceable and a wonderful person.
    We will miss you dearly Chuck..

    Take care, Jack

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  6. I just today found out about Chuck's passing and cannot believe this life-loving, wilderness-defending, gentle bear of a man is now gone. He was my faculty advisor during a 2-year thesis project at the U of Montana and I could not have asked for a wiser, more knowledgeable and devoted mentor. Thank you Chuck for all you gave to your students, to wildlife, and to the world.

    Mary K.

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