AWR Blog

A Grizzly Tale? There are Bears in these Woods — Black Bears, but Chuck Jonkel is Stalking Bigger Prey Nobody has seen for Years

Great Grizzly Search hits National media, Wall Street Journal article follows:

by Jim Carlton
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

CLEARWATER CROSSING, Mont. — If you want to find grizzly bears, you need to get into a grizzly state of mind, which is why Chuck Jonkel is on hands and knees at a forest trailhead here in the Rocky Mountains.

“Look at things from a bear’s perspective,” Mr. Jonkel says, cocking his head at several people who are staring down at him. “Even get down on all fours and dig.”

The onlookers are volunteers who will help Mr. Jonkel try to prove that grizzly bears still roam these mountains. Grizzly sightings haven’t been verified here for decades, so finding them will take unusual skills. Mr. Jonkel demonstrates one now: He spots a giant anthill and crawls over. He plunges a hand into the hill, comes out with a fistful of ants, and stuffs them into his mouth.

“They’re quite tasty, actually,” Mr. Jonkel says, smacking his lips. “Zesty Italian.”

Mr. Jonkel has a Ph.D. in zoology, and thinking like a bear is very serious business for him. He’s a leader of the Great Grizzly Search, an ambitious effort by scholars and bear lovers looking for evidence that the great bears still exist in the Bitterroot range, which straddles Montana and Idaho. They want Washington to give grizzlies extra protection against hunters. But the feds insist that there aren’t any to protect — that grizzlies were killed off more than 50 years ago by hunters, ranchers and others because the bears were a threat to livestock and a danger to people.

So Mr. Jonkel is teaching his volunteers to collect evidence. Among other things, he shows them how to make plaster molds of paw prints found in the forest. Mr. Jonkel holds up an authentic-looking paw-print cast, 10 inches in length and displaying razor-sharp claws. “A black bear has shorter claws, and a much shorter arch,” he says. There are plenty of black bears around.

To find a grizzly, Mr. Jonkel says, go where a grizzly might eat. In the wilderness, a grizzly will consume as much as 70 pounds of food a day. “Grass, bark, berries, dead animals, you name it and they’ll likely eat it,” he says, gesturing around a clearing. Mr. Jonkel points out dandelions, flowers and alderberry bushes, occasionally grabbing at plants and gobbling them himself.

An organizer of the search, Bob Clark, checks his watch and interrupts: “Can we talk about hair and scat?”

And so the subject turns to scat. A finding of verifiable grizzly droppings, which come in foot-long piles, would go a long way toward proving that grizzlies have survived here, Mr. Jonkel explains. “If the droppings are over two inches long, you can say, ‘Boy, that’s probably grizzly bear,’ ” he says.

It’s an issue now because the government has adopted a controversial plan to reintroduce 25 grizzlies into the Bitterroots beginning in 2002. The bears would be classified as “nonessential, experimental,” which is to say they would get less protection against wanton killings by hunters and ranchers than other grizzlies in the northern Rockies that are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The “nonessential” grizzlies, the activists argue, would put native grizzlies at risk — if indeed there are any hereabouts.

The government’s idea is to restore the bears to a sprawling wilderness between grizzly strongholds around Yellowstone National Park and the Canadian border. Many scientists believe the 1,000 or so grizzlies left in the lower 48 states — down from an estimated 100,000 before Europeans arrived — will die out if not given more such habitats.

Some locals don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about a grizzly reintroduction, which they say may threaten hikers and livestock. While the Great Grizzly trackers actually side with the government’s plan to bring grizzlies to the area, they believe federal wildlife experts are deliberately ignoring evidence of existing bears.

Chris Servheen, grizzly-bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, doesn’t believe any grizzlies have been spotted in these parts. “If we could find them, we’d tell you,” he says.

While U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they’ve confirmed no trace of a Bitterroot grizzly since 1946, a packer for the Lolo National Forest, which covers much of the range, reported spotting a bear with the telltale hump and dish-faced head of a grizzly on June 1, 1998. A few days later, another Lolo employee reported seeing a grizzly-size track in the same area. Last summer, Lolo ranger Kevin Foss also reported seeing a young bear that had the brownish color and grizzled hair of the species.

“I’m 99% sure I saw a grizzly bear,” Mr. Foss says.

Mr. Servheen concedes that while it’s possible a grizzly or two might occasionally wander through from somewhere else, that wouldn’t constitute a healthy population of bears, which would have to include at least one reproducing female.

Freshly indoctrinated in bear psychology, the Great Grizzly Search volunteers are eager to find that female — or any other grizzlies — as they hoist backpacks and set out from the trailhead for the first of a number of weekend excursions planned for the summer. Since most of the recent grizzly reports have been concentrated around a place called Fish Creek, this is where the activists focus their search. Mr. Jonkel tells the hikers, mostly environmental activists from the area, to use caution around grizzlies as they can weigh 700 pounds and run faster than you can.

“You can’t be too careful out there,” he warns.

The likelihood of a grizzly attack is remote: Only one or two people a year are killed by a grizzly anywhere in North America, usually in places like British Columbia and Alaska. But many of the leisure horsemen that the volunteers pass on the trail pack guns nevertheless. (Black bears can also be dangerous.) Mr. Clark, outreach director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, the environmental group based in Missoula, Mont., which has coordinated the volunteer grizzly searches, is armed, too — with nonlethal pepper spray. But he and members of his group don’t carry guns, and they don’t wear bells, a common practice in bear country to avoid confrontations.

“We’re here to find a bear, not scare away a bear,” explains Mr. Clark, a 39-year-old woodsman. Anticipation is high as the volunteers split into two groups, a foursome headed by Mr. Clark and a fivesome headed by 27-year-old Jennifer Nitz, a local bison researcher.

Mr. Clark’s entourage halts at a drop-off along the trail to check out what appear to be foot-wide bear tracks along the creek bed far below. “Looks like Sasquatch,” says Jennifer Ferenstein, a Sierra Club activist from Missoula, referring to Bigfoot. The terrain is too steep to investigate more closely.

After pitching camp near some abandoned hunting cabins, Mr. Clark’s group heads out the next morning to explore an avalanche clearing nearby where thick underbrush lines a stream coursing out of 7,663-foot Crater Peak. “Bear heaven,” Mr. Clark says.

As the sun fades back at camp, Mr. Clark sees some moving specks on a high ridge across the valley. “Binoculars,” he cries, grabbing a pair. A closer look reveals two bears: one the size and shape of a grizzly. “I won’t say for sure it’s a grizzly, but that’s enough to excite me,” he says.

He races to a trail overlook for a better view, but curses when gunshots ring out from a horsemen’s camp up the canyon — presumably target-shooters. The bears disappear — the only bears seen on this trip.

But excitement returns the next day when the two groups rendezvous at the trailhead to compare notes after 25 miles of hiking. Ms. Nitz beams as she hands over a bag that makes Mr. Clark’s jaw drop: It contains four-inch-long feces pellets. “This is the Mother Lode,” Mr. Clark says.

There’s no way of knowing whether the pellets are from grizzlies until DNA analysis comes back from a lab in a few weeks. But thanks to the find, Mr. Clark declares the inaugural search a “great success” — as everyone piles into cars to go home.

For more information about how you can participate in the Great Grizzly Search please email Alliance for the Wild Rockies outreach director, Bob Clark.



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