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Chuck Jonkel: Pioneer, Rebel, Advocate of Bears and the Wild

On April 12, Dr. Charles Jonkel, a mentor and hero for nature, passed away. Chuck was a pioneering bear biologist who paved the way for countless researchers and helped bring about a transformation in our understanding of bears and human relations with them. He was an educator, who made the natural world come alive in the eyes of kids of all ages. He was the epitome too of a conservation advocate, who saw the destruction of the wild and would not be silent. And as anyone who met him intuitively knew, Chuck, with his lumbering gait and heavy build, was at least part bear.

I can’t recall when I first met Chuck, after corresponding with him in the early 1980s while in graduate school writing papers about grizzly bears. By the mid-1980s, when I took on grizzly bear conservation professionally and moved to Montana, Chuck just seemed to be part of my ecology, more than willing to share his insights on bears, natural history, and our moral duty to protect the wild. In the field, I remember him waxing eloquent on how bears used a particular plant, while rubbing his back on a pine tree, just like a bear.

As a 20-something greenhorn from back east, I knew just enough to be dangerous, and Chuck set me straight on many fronts.  By then Chuck was one of the top “go to” experts on bears, having gotten his start in 1959 in Canada in an early, ground-breaking study of polar bears. He had received his PhD on black bears in Montana’s Whitefish Range. But we found ourselves mostly talking about grizzly bears at a time when their future in places like Yellowstone was very much in doubt, and their numbers may have hovered down around 300 individuals total – perhaps their lowest ebb ever.

I will always remember what Chuck told me about keeping things simple: saving bears is about protecting habitat and not killing too many. The more wilderness, the better. The more human tolerance, the more bears can live near people. Although the world of bear research and conservation has gotten lots more complicated over the years, Chuck’s message still rings truer than ever.

When I read research papers now that report highly sophisticated modeling, complex statistics, or algorithms that I cannot understand, I sometimes wonder: does this bring us closer to fundamental bear truths or further from them? I see ever more clearly now how easy it is to get caught up in the latest fancy statistical method, and lose track of the purpose and the point.  Chuck never did.

For years, I shared an office suite with staff of the Great Bear Foundation, a bear advocacy organization that Chuck started, which brought me closer to his philosophy and style. (I was then Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition). They were always hatching new educational programs to improve relations between people and bears. The community apple gatherings in the fall, for example, combined Chuck’s commitment to preventing bears from becoming conditioned to human foods, and his own love of food, as the apples made for great cider.

In 1990, I had an opportunity to see Chuck in action with his peers from around the world at the International Bear Association meeting in Missoula. These meetings still convene hundreds of the world’s bear experts, and at this one, Chuck was a center of attention — introducing panels, leading workshops, disarming even the shyest student.

Many of the scientists were on their best behavior so as to avoid offending bureaucrats and scientists from government agencies, which were the source of most research funding and jobs. The students, many looking for jobs, also tended to be supplicant and non-provocative. It seemed like Chuck’s mission was to speak truth to power, and share his views that the world was going to hell for bears as a result of human intolerance and habitat exploitation. And that we all — scientists, agency reps, students, members of the media — needed to get out there, tell the story, and do something to change it.

I was amazed at the response. Chuck, the most radical, outspoken person in the room, was applauded, numerous times. No one disagreed with him, not even the Russians, who it seemed to me then hailed from a kind of bear paradise, far from the hell realms. For everyone knew that Chuck was speaking the truth. As with Cassandra, Chuck’s warnings have been tragically realized, as bears of all species worldwide face ever greater perils – even the tiny Sun Bear of Borneo, not much bigger than a Newfoundland dog.

I know I am not the only one to have been profoundly influenced by Chuck’s free expression of his passion and outrage at the injustices of the world. He helped give me permission to voice my own frustrations about the plight of bears and other wild animals that have no vote. The other giants who set similar examples for me were Frank and John Craighead, famous trail blazers in grizzly bear research. After 30 plus years of advocacy on behalf of bears and wild nature, I may have mellowed on some scores, but not, as with Chuck and the Craigheads, when it comes to the bear’s fate or to the importance of humans’ choosing a less destructive path.

Chuck helped open my eyes and heart too to the spirit side of the bear world. It was through Chuck that I met Indian elders such as Gordon Belcourt and Buster Yellow Kidney, who spoke powerfully about bears as kin and guides, and about the ancient, rich connections between humans and the Great Bear. Indeed, one consistent feature of Chuck’s frequent bear gatherings was prayer and spiritual celebration of bears led by Tribal leaders. His spring Bear Honoring ceremonies — funky, freewheeling modern versions of an ancient tradition — welcomed the return of the bear to life after a winter of seeming death. The miracle that is hibernation was a promise of renewal for all of us. I still am astonished how seamlessly Chuck, with all his scientific training, could move back and forth between the scientific and the spiritual sides of life — different sides of the same coin, in Chuck’s way of thinking.

Chuck’s life has prompted me to reflect on those qualities that made him stand out from the pack: a commitment to justice, honesty and personal integrity. He always fought for the underdog, anyone who had been abused by the system. He was generous and selfless to fault, even if his kindness was returned badly. Dr. Chris Servheen, the recently retired US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) grizzly bear recovery coordinator, is an unfortunate example of a former protégé who returned Chuck’s generosity with a stab in the back. After derailing Chuck’s career, Servheen went on to make what could be construed as a successful 40 year career of his own out of lying and distorting the science to support the status quo industrialization of bear habitat and unreasoned relentless persecution of bears.

And what did Chuck do? He walked on with grace to the next adventure. Chuck created the first wildlife film festival. He wove flower chains at the farmers market. He led trips to his beloved arctic haunts to introduce others to polar bears. And he pot-latched everyone along the way, feeding people freely his home-baked bread with slabs of sausage he made from elk he had harvested. Refusing to get in pissing matches with skunks, Chuck transcended the Servheens of the world.

I am not sure if it was Chuck who coined the moniker “Self-Servheen” but it fit Chuck’s style. Indeed, Chuck was blessed with a peculiar gift of speech, which had a way of nailing his points into your skull. I recently ran into a Chuck-ism, while preparing comments opposed to the latest round of efforts to delist Yellowstone grizzly bears. One key argument is the need to reconnect long isolated Yellowstone bears to other populations in the Northern Rockies, rather than rely on artificial importation of bears from Canada to keep the population healthy. Here’s Chuck: “Dropping a bear from Canada into Yellowstone is like dropping a naked man into eastern Turkey. He might be able to survive, but probably not.”

You might try to forget Chuck-isms, but you have to work hard… and I for one, don’t want to.

Chuck has travelled on, perhaps to rejoin his bear brethren. Whatever path I take in what remains of my life, it is richer for the many lessons he graciously offered, like the abundant fruits from his home garden.

Oh, and Chuck– rest assured that Native People and another generation of young advocates are still going after the bastards and will work, as you did, to restore sanity and humanity to an ego-enamored world.

Chuck’s legacy continues through the work of the Great Bear Foundation  and through the many students who he inspired. For more on Chuck, here is a link to a film produced by Great Bear Foundation and Salish Kootenai College: “Walking Bear Comes Home: The Life and Work of Charles Jonkel.”

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Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.

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