Montana Grizzly Bear Expert Advocate Jonkel Dies at 85

Jonkel led the Border Grizzly Project shortly after the bears were placed under federal protection in 1975

By Dillon Tabish

MISSOULA — Pioneering bear researcher and advocate Charles “Chuck” Jonkel died of natural causes at a Montana nursing home, his son Jamie Jonkel said.

Chuck Jonkel died Tuesday evening in Missoula. He was 85.

Jonkel led the Border Grizzly Project shortly after the bears were placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1975. He founded the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, which sought scientifically accurate films. He also was a former president of the Great Bear Foundation, which works to protect grizzly, black and polar bears across North America.

His career included polar bear research in the Canadian Arctic and teaching as a faculty member of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program.

Fellow instructor Dan Pletscher said many students came to Missoula specifically to study with Jonkel.

“Chuck knew as much or more about the natural history of bears in general probably than anybody in the world at that time,” Pletscher said. “And he acted in a lot of ways like a grizzly bear. He knew which plants were edible. He would scratch his back on a tree like a bear when talking to a class in the field. He was a consummate naturalist.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks state bear biologist Mike Madel said Jonkel inspired the careers of most of today’s bear scientists.

“He was by far the most informed bear biologist around when most of us started,” Madel told the Missoulian. His work with the Border Grizzly Project was trying to understand the ecology of grizzly bears in Montana and the effects that logging, roads and recreation had on the bruins.

“Back then there were only an estimated 370 to 390 grizzlies in the whole Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem,” Madel said. Now there are more than 1,000 bears in the area including Glacier National Park and wilderness lands to the north and south, Madel said.

Federal and state agencies have proposed lifting Endangered Species Act protections for grizzlies in the separate Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which has another 700 to 1,000 grizzly bears.

Jamie Jonkel, a state bear biologist, said Thursday his dad didn’t really trust that humans could maintain grizzly bear habitat without the federal protections. But his father also recognized that the Endangered Species Act needed success stories and that grizzly bear recovery has been a success story, Jonkel said.

The Great Bear Foundation and Salish Kootenai College Media have been working on a documentary on Jonkel’s life and work. In an interview, Jonkel said he wanted to be reincarnated as a polar bear and he had a den picked out on North Twin Island in the Hudson Bay between Ontario and Quebec in Canada. A clip of the documentary is scheduled to air at the 39th International Wildlife Film Festival, which starts Saturday in Missoula.

Jonkel is survived by his wife Joan, son Jamie Jonkel and daughter Elizabeth Jonkel.

Funeral services are pending.