Chuck Jonkel almost died once. He was flying in a helicopter in the Arctic doing research on polar bears for the Canadian Wildlife Service. It was 1972.
The crew got caught in some bad weather and they couldn’t see where they were going. It was like flying inside a ping pong ball.
They crashed. The helicopter hit a snow drift and rolled over. They were stranded on the Arctic ice.
This story, and other stories of Jonkel’s life will be previewed at the awards ceremony for the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula on April 22.
Jonkel founded the Film Festival in 1977.
On Tuesday, Jonkel died at his home in Missoula. He was 85 years old.
“There will be a tremendous loss. But I feel that dad has a lot of people out there who will pick up where he left off.”
That’s Jonkel’s son, Jamie. Jamie works as a bear management specialist in Montana.
His father was a pioneer in wildlife research. He helped lead the Border Grizzly Project when the bears were placed under Endangered Species Act protection in 1975. He was former president of the Great Bear Foundation, which works to protect bears across North America.
Jonkel came to work in Montana in the mid-70s and become a faculty member in the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program.
“At that time grizzly bear population were, oh boy, probably down as low as they’d ever been since European man showed up in North America. So the first thing they did was to figure out how many were left, what were the important habit areas, how humans were impacting them.”
Since Jonkel’s work began, grizzly population has increased in the Northwest. A controversial proposal to remove the bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem from the endangered species list is currently pending.
“You know I think he was very proud of the fact that endangered species classification of grizzly bears has brought them back. And it is a wonderful success story. But I know he rolled around in his bed wondering if we could keep it going. Dad was concerned, wondered if the modern European mentality in the United States would allow this wild country to stay wild. I guess we’ll see.”
Although much of his work focused on grizzly bears, his son says Jonkel wanted to show people a more mindful way of living with nature.
“The way I always see it, he would grab people by the sides of their cheeks and kind of look in their eyes for a minute, and steer their heads in the direction, so they could see what they were unable to see before.”
President of the Board of the Great Bear Foundation, Frank Tyro, first met Chuck Jonkel during a trip to Churchill, Manitoba. They went with a group of University of Montana students to view polar bears.
“Chuck helped me to see the broader picture, as well as the connectedness between everything that is living and non-living,” Tryo said.
“It's something that went so far beyond his career or his calling. It was this innate way of connecting with people that he had, that I think is his greatest legacy," said Executive Director of the Great Bear Foundation, Shannon Donahue.
“He has had such a tremendous impact on bear biology, conservation, but I think his biggest impacts have been ways he has touched people's hearts. So I think going on in the future, there are so many people feeling his loss right now and it is a heartbreaking time for everybody. But I think his legacy is going to continue, both in the way we connect with other people who have been inspired by him but also in the way his work will continue to impact conservation and biology.”
On the day Jonkel crashed in a helicopter on the Arctic ice, his crew didn’t know when, or if they would be found. They built a shelter. One of the crew went out to try and catch a seal to eat.
But soon another helicopter came out of the fog and spotted them.
The Great Bear Foundation and Salish Kootenai College Media later interviewed Jonkel about that moment for an upcoming film. Here’s Chuck Jonkel.
“Sometimes I wonder if I did really crack up one of those times and that everything that I’m talking about and seeing and doing now is that period before you die when everything flashes before your eyes. For all I know, maybe a minute or so ago we had a crash landing, and you’re just flashing by.”
The preview of the movie "Walking Bear Comes Home: The Life and Work Of Charles Jonkel" will be shown this month at the International Film Festival in Missoula. The full documentary is set to be released next year.