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Polar bears, late UM professor featured in FLIC film

POLSON — Local filmmaker Frank Tyro got emotional while working on “Walking Bear Comes Home.”

“There were times I just had to walk away and come back to it,” he said, referring to the 57-minute documentary about the life of his mentor and friend, the late Charles Jonkel, a wildlife biologist and University of Montana environmental studies professor.

Much of the film, which was shown Saturday afternoon at Showboat Cinemas as part of the Flathead Lake International Cinemafest, was about Jonkel’s work with polar bears in the Arctic Circle. 

Jonkel began his work with polar bears in 1966 in Canada with the Canadian Wildlife Service. 

Near the beginning of the film, Jonkel and a co-worker are interviewed about a helicopter crash on Ellesmere Island, Canada where they went “way off course,” crashed, pitched a tent and slept on the seats from the helicopter until another chopper just happened to fly by. 

In the film, polar bears are described as “big pussycats compared to grizzlies and a lot of black bears.” However, on one occasion Jonkel helped pull a coworker out of a polar bear den after he was grabbed by a mama bear and pulled into the den. The man had been walking over the den on about 10 inches of snow so that the sow could see him. He and the bear swatted at each other inside the den — her cubs were also there — until the bear threw the man up and out of her lair. Jonkel heard the man’s cries and just happened to be at arm’s length when he was ejected. 

Jonkel said he took an Inuit native along whenever he traveled in the Arctic Circle because they knew the geography. He had a special rapport with the natives, a coworker said. 

Jonkel spent hours capturing, drugging and tagging polar bears for his research. At times this involved helping them breathe when they were sedated. This artificial respiration included pushing down on their rib cage, pulling their skin and lifting a foot. 

He described polar bears as curious about people. They would sometimes interact with groups of four or five humans. “They would look and sniff, look and sniff and turn around and walk away,” he said. 

In 1981, Jonkel helped found the Great Bear Foundation to benefit North American grizzlies and other bears. Eventually eight species of bears would be helped by the non-profit organization that has offices in Missoula and Haines, Alaska. 

Although he first studied pine martens as an underclassman at the University of Montana, Jonkel began a black bear study in 1959 while pursuing his master’s degree. At first he didn’t want to do it because they had interfered with his pine marten study, but it was either that or a summer job raking leaves so he chose the black bear study even though it paid less. 

Jonkel then worked with bears for more than 50 years. He also studied arctic ecology, taught conservation-based field courses to the general public and wildlife research techniques. 

He brought a woman coworker to the Arctic and received some “nasty” feedback about that, Jonkel said. The woman was apparently the first non-native woman to work in the Canadian Arctic. 

Jonkel was instrumental in getting the U.S., Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Russia and Norway to establish quotas for polar bear hunting through the International Union for Conservation of Nature (Oslo 1973) and also helped guarantee indigenous hunting rights.

He was a founder of the International Wildlife Film Festival and worked for ethics and accuracy in wildlife media. Tyro worked with Jonkel at the Missoula festival before getting involved in FLIC. 

Tyro said it took about 10 years to complete the film with the last five or six years “in earnest.” 

In a brief question-and-answer following Saturday’s film showing, Tyro said Jonkel was “the best wild game cook in the world.”

Tyro, who has worked on about 150 films, said he hopes Walking Bear Comes Home inspires others to visit the Arctic and other ecosystems. 

Jonkel, who was born July 16, 1930 in Chicago and raised on his grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin, retired in 2012. He died April 12, 2016. 

Walking Bear Comes Home DVDs, which include bonus footage, can be purchased at greatbear.org for $20. 

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