It was the cold heart of winter in the Rocky Mountains. The merciless wind howled through Hellgate Canyon. Snow frosted my face. My feet and hands were frozen. I had no food. Death trailed me like a shadow. Lured by an enchanting distant growl, I blindly struggled forward, stumbling into a snow cave. Dim light sifted around me. I gasped. A large bear lay before me and he wasn’t sleeping. He was telling a story in sounds I could understand. What else could I do? Grateful to be alive, I sat down, felt his warmth, and listened. Deep inside the cave the wind was but a whisper.
Well . . . kind of.
But it was cold and windy last winter. And I hadn’t stuffed my face with any food for at least an hour before I stopped by the Great Bear Foundation’s office in Missoula, Montana. It wasn’t quite a bear cave I stumbled into – more like a 1920’s well-built bungalow filled with anything and everything you could ever read about bears. I did, however, have the privilege of listening to a kind, seasoned, bear-like man, tell stories.
Meet Dr. Charles (“Chuck”) Jonkel. Chuck is a world renowned bear biologist. While his knowledge is great with all 8 bear species of the world (polar bears and brown bears; black bears and spectacled bears; panda bears and sun bears; sloth bears and Asiatic black bears) his research over the last 50 years has focused specifically on the three North American species: black, grizzly, and polar bears.
“Bears are a very powerful symbol. We can learn a lot from bears.” Chuck’s voice is disarming and kind, saturated with experience and seasoned with hard-earned wisdom. “They were here first. Long before the two-legged bears arrived, the grizzly bear ruled the North American continent.” Like blue ice, his eyes sparkle.
The grizzly bear (common name for brown bear roaming interior Alaska and the lower 48 states) once inhabited land from Alaska south into the present state of Durango, Mexico, and as far east as the Great Plains. Yet today they are confined to only 2% of their original habitat, living in vast rugged mountainous areas in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Alaska and Canada.
Chuck speculates that if it weren’t for humans grizzlies, “would have inhabited most of North America and probably all of South America.” Perhaps even finding the South Pole a nice home, evolving into another type of polar bear, enjoying “fat penguins and tasty seals.”
But the grizzlies didn’t make it to South America or the East Coast. Brazil nuts and acorns never filled the big bellies of grizzlies. We humans (Homo sapiens), stopped them cold by cutting a few trees, building a few homes, constructing some roads, doing a little farming, digging around for some precious metals and throwing away a little trash.
Now grizzlies are confined to a tiny sliver of their old stomping ground. Where there were once approximately 60,000 grizzlies, there are now around 1,200. “And their present habitat is unlikely to get much larger. This may be as good as it gets,” cautions Chuck.
Hhhhhmmmm . . .
One of the present challenges, explains Chuck, is how to best optimize the existing habitat. He is adamant that minimizing bear attractants is a great starting point. “Getting rid of bird feeders in the spring, dog food on the porch, and garbage left in back of the pick-up would go a long way in reducing bear and human conflicts. Just like humans, bears want easy food. If we give it to them once, they’ll be back for seconds.”
Chuck is pleased that bear awareness in grizzly country has grown over the years and recognizes that being vigilant with bear awareness education is the key to improving bear habitat. “Most people want to do the right things for bears, but it’s hard to do the right thing if people living in bear country aren’t aware of the basic practices that are likely to reduce conflicts with bears.” Fortunately for both bears and people, Chuck has been sharing his knowledge of bears with the public ever since he began studying them in the 1950’s.
Bears as Teachers
Chuck makes it clear that “bear cubs don’t have a different math teacher, science teacher, reading teacher, or soccer coach. They just have Mom. What to eat? Where to sleep? How to stay warm? Where to find food? It’s all up to the mother to instruct her cubs the ways of the world. Without Mom around, bear cubs would have it pretty tough.”
Great Gardening Tools
An important part of grizzly diets are the roots and
bulbs of plants and their magnificent claws are perfect for digging up such food. The massive claws are also ideal for digging out dens and finding bugs in dead trees.
It’s not rocket science. Grizzly bears are powerful beings. They are wild animals that require large space. If they feel threatened or are surprised, they will act accordingly. Just like us. Chuck has worked with bears most of his adult life and absent his professional experiences when he has interacted with bears as a biologist, he has never had an altercation with a grizzly. That’s not to say bears don’t demand respect when people enter their habitat. Of course they do. An encounter with a surprised or aggressive grizzly can be fatal. That certainly isn’t the rule of thumb rather the rare exception.
Chuck is blunt. “Grizzlies are bigger, stronger, and faster than any person on the planet, yet it is the smaller, weaker, slower humans that hold the key to the survival of the bears.”
Unrelenting demands on finite natural resources that comprise precious grizzly habitat and decision makers that may not always have the best interests of bears in mind, provide a futuristic landscape for the bears that harbors little room for poor decisions.
Thanks to Chuck and many other individuals and groups dedicated to grizzly bear ecology and conservation, grizzly populations in the lower 48 states have increased over the last sixty years. But for all practical purposes there’s simply not much more elbow room in which to expand. The planet just isn’t growing anymore land. That means the smaller, weaker, slower species shoulder the awesome responsibility of managing the remaining occupied habitat the best we can with respect to bears’ long term survival. As Chuck stated, “Bears can teach us all how to live responsibly within our own habitat. We just need the patience and wisdom to listen.”
It’s now late spring in the Rockies. The first day of summer is but an arm’s reach away. Arrowleaf balsamroot cover the hillsides. Peak flows from the Clark Fork River roar through Hellgate Canyon. Sunlight lingers deep into the night. Wobbly-kneed elk calves see their first blue birds. Grizzly cubs bask in the sun while Mom sniffs the new day. It’s a good time to be patient and listen.