Seeley Swan Pathfinder -


By Betty Vanderwielen

Film pays tribute to Chuck Jonkel


September 6, 2018

Frank H. Tyro, 2004

During one of his Arctic field classes in Churchill, Manitoba, Chuck Jonkel demonstrated how to build an igloo.

SEELEY LAKE – More than 100 people crowded into the Seeley Lake Community Hall Thursday, Aug. 30, to view a film celebrating a man acclaimed as the father of bear biology. The documentary "Walking Bear Comes Home, the Life and Work of Chuck Jonkel" was part of the educational Pure Montana Tales series sponsored by Clearwater Resource Council and Blackfoot Challenge.

Jonkel's interaction with bears began in 1959 after he graduated with a Master Degree in Wildlife Biology from the University of Montana and was looking for a job.

In the film, Jonkel relates, "I had two job offers. One was to start a black bear study, and the other was to rake leaves on campus. The leaf job actually paid more, but I thought, 'I'm a biologist. I better take the biologist job.' But I didn't know zip about bears."

In fact, at that time, no one knew very much about bears because it was impossible to handle them to get statistics such as age, weight, health condition, etc. That changed with the advent of the dart gun in 1957. Suddenly it became possible to immobilize a bear, monitor its condition and collect other data. That's what Jonkel was hired to do for black bears. He did such a good job that the Canadian Wildlife Service hired him in 1966 to conduct a field study of polar bears and their habitat.

According to the documentary, Jonkel and his team spent the next decade exploring the Canadian Arctic and compiling the first comprehensive database on polar bears. All subsequent work on bears built on Jonkel's seminal research and methodology. Altogether Jonkel spent 50 years working with and for bears.

Bear research is inherently dangerous and arctic conditions make it even more so, but of all the animals Jonkel conducted research on, he considered polar bears the easiest to work with.

He said polar bears were "big pussycats compared to a typical grizzly and compared to a lot of black bears." According to Jonkel, the polar bear's whole focus is on finding and eating ringed seals.

Jonkel said, "They're curious about people and I've had them many times walk up to three, four or five feet from me and look and sniff and look and sniff and look and sniff and turn around and walk away." However, he cautioned, "What you don't want to do is get in a sleeping bag and be sleeping out on the ice. Because then you'll look like a ringed seal."

Jonkel was instrumental in establishing a number of important programs and organizations, among them

• 1973 - International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears signed by Canada, Denmark, Norway, USA, and the former USSR.

• 1974 - Border Grizzly Project, called one of the most comprehensive studies of grizzly bears and their habitat requirements ever conducted. Encompassing Glacier National Park and Waterton Provincial Park, the study helped to shape habitat, quota systems and forest management policies in the West and established a better understanding of cumulative human impacts on grizzly bears.

• 1977 - International Film Festival, a response to the way animals were being portrayed in films. Jonkel insisted on biologically accurate depictions.

• 1981 - Great Bear Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of bears and their habitat worldwide

Photo provided

Chuck Jonkel studied polar bears in the Arctic.

The documentary speaks briefly about these milestones in bear conservation and about Jonkel's years teaching wildlife biology at the University of Montana and field courses in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. More important to Shannon Donahue, Executive Director of the Great Bear Foundation and script writer for the documentary, was conveying a sense of Jonkel's personality. Donahue interviewed numerous people whose lives Jonkel had touched. Recurring over and over in their memories of him were his sense of humor, his friendliness and ability to put everyone at ease, and the fact that the more he worked with bears, the more he came to look and act like a bear himself.

Aside from bears, Jonkel had a passion for gardening. In Missoula, he maintained a large garden, most of the produce from which he gave away. One member of the audience spoke of Jonkel's kindness and generosity. Recalling his own days as a student at the University of Montana, he said Jonkel would just show up some days with bags full of vegetables.

Perhaps Sierra Club Senior Organizing Representative David Merrill sums it up best in the film when he described Jonkel as, "Someone who just spreads love on a daily basis. I think that's his signature achievement."


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