The Great Bear’s BFF

Saving a little room for Jonkel’s great bears is something worth doing

By Rob Breeding

Years ago I had a summer job working in the backcountry for the Forest Service. It wasn’t easy work, but it was fun and we were getting paid to spend our time in the wilderness of Montana, so in one way it almost felt as though we were getting paid to go camping.

A source of relief was that we were working in the Bitterroot/Selway, officially a griz-free zone. I say officially, as rumors of grizzly bears lingering in that country persist. We didn’t see any signs of grizzlies that summer, and while we still had to keep an orderly camp so as to avoid attracting the unwanted attention of black bears, we didn’t live with the kind of caution necessary when grizzly bears are around.

Like I said, they weren’t around officially, but there are a few who speculate there still might be a survivor or two eking out a living in the heart of that rugged country, one of the biggest chunks of wilderness in the Lower 48. These would be bears with an exceptionally keen sense of survival, bears that understood the threat those furless, two-legged bears posed, and persisted in part by avoiding them at all costs. Rick Bass wrote a book suggesting the same thing, only he was writing about the wilds of Colorado, which are also officially griz-free.

The first time I heard someone say there may still be bears in the Bitterroot was back in the early ‘90s, shortly after I moved to Hamilton. The suggestion — and I hope I’m remembering this right — was made by bear biologist Chuck Jonkel. It was more than 20 years ago, and I no longer have a clip of the story I wrote about the meeting for the local newspaper, but my memory of that evening was of the bear’s BFF talking about the kind of wise old bruins that might still live there.

That presentation by Jonkel, who passed away in Missoula last week, left a lasting impression. Griz have long been a hot topic in the Bitterroot. When I became editor of that Bitterroot newspaper, the publisher and I decided to editorialize in support of the Citizens’ Management (reintroduction) Plan that had been proposed by the Feds. The response from our readers was intense and soon after the editorial hit, I was invited to sit down with members of the valley’s most prominent anti-reintroduction group.

There were 30 of them and one of me. I didn’t change any minds, and that wasn’t my intent. I just listened, which is one of the requirements for being a responsible journalist. In any event, the plan (that was never implemented) wasn’t such a radical idea. Even then Gov. Marc Racicot supported the plan as well.

There was something else I remember Jonkel saying that evening. He talked about the rapid growth in western Montana and the impact that would have on wildlife in the region. He was mostly right about that as well, though the recession a decade ago has slowed the onslaught somewhat.

I recall Jonkel predicting that the metastasizing growth along the Highway 93 corridor would eventually become one, and there would be continuous development from Darby to Eureka. We seemed poised to make that dismal prediction come true. In fact, I think the project is already complete, from Darby to Missoula at least.

Growth, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. We need some measure of growth to provide economic opportunity — good paying jobs — to the people who live in western Montana, or plan to live here soon.

It’s the unplanned growth Jonkel warned us about. Wildlife needs space, and unlike probably every other species on the planet, we’re the only one that seems to understand that there’s value in not growing too much, in understanding that saving a little room for Jonkel’s great bears is something worth doing.