It's 5 a.m., and at the center of the University of Montana's campus a huge bronze grizzly bear that symbolizes the ferociousness of the university's football team stands silhouetted against the faint light in the eastern sky. Not far away, Dr. Charles Jonkel flicks on the lights in his office, revealing a room full of bear symbols -- paintings of polar bears, posters of pandas, post cards of black bears, old bear traps, and plaster casts of grizzly bear tracks. The academic year has just come to a close, and Dr. Jonkel can now devote more time to another kind of teaching -- not of students, but of grizzly bears. He trains them to be afraid of people in what has become known as the ``bear school.''
``Actually, a better name for it is an `aversive conditioning laboratory,' '' says Dr. Jonkel as he rubs his eyes and begins to rustle through the mounds of paper work on his desk.
Some of Dr. Jonkel's associates say he has worked so many years with bears that he moves like one. He forages through his desk like a bear scavenging for berries. For the past 25 years he has studied bears -- polar bears in the Arctic, black bears in Canada, and now he is one of several scientists studying the grizzly and its declining habitat in the continental United States.
He arrives at his office every morning before dawn to catch up on paper work that comes with being an eminent authority on bears. Soon after 7 a.m. his phone begins to ring. A game warden wonders what to do with two orphaned cubs. A local hotel asks him to speak to guests about living with grizzlies. Such requests are taken in stride, as important to him as the lectures he gives at major bear symposiums around the world. Roaming grizzlies
There was a time when as many as 100,000 grizzlies roamed western North America. Decades ago they disappeared from the Midwest plains. Of the estimated 10,000 that once inhabited California, none are left. Although there may be 13,000 to 18,000 in Alaska, no more than 700 to 900 are left in the lower 48 states, and they are squeezed into about 1 percent of their original range.
The largest and most stable population, an estimated 450 to 650 grizzlies, lives in northern Montana's Glacier National Park and in the adjacent wilderness areas. Since 1973 Dr. Jonkel has been studying the grizzlies in this area as director of the Border Grizzly Project, a private US and Canadian effort.
``We are still losing habitat,'' says Dr. Jonkel, citing the new homes and ski resorts being built on lands frequented by grizzlies. ``And as we continue to lose habitat to various kinds of development, there are going to be more and more conflicts between bears and people.'' He believes, however, that ``problem bears'' can be taught to give humans a wide berth. Until his research began, the only way of dealing with such bears -- those who frequent campsites, kill livestock, scare hikers, or in some cases kill humans -- was to destroy them, place them in zoos, or relocate them. The latter isn't always effective as the bears usually take their bad habits with them.
``I think we can make them wary of people through our `aversive conditioning' program so that they can be released into the wild and avoid creating further problems,'' says Dr. Jonkel.
The therapy involves scaring the bear with certain devices until the bear no longer attempts to approach -- or charge -- humans. The bears are housed in a ``grizzly schoolhouse,'' a converted prison cellblock that once served as the brig at the Army's Fort Missoula during World War II. A trainer walks in front of the steel door of a cell and if the bear charges, it is made to retreat by being subjected to various repellents -- a railroad flare, an umbrella that suddenly pops open, or a red pepper spray that stings the bear's eyes and noses. The progress of each pupil is recorded with military precision.
``At that point we stop. It doesn't make them mean; we don't push them that far,'' contends Jonkel. Any bear returned to the wild is fitted with a radio collar so it can be tracked and, if necessary, punished with rubber bullets or other repellants if it gets into trouble again. Learning how to live with people
Jonkel has trained and released about a dozen problem bears to Montana forests and only one got himself shot and killed -- by invading a chicken coop.
``We can write books and make movies and hold workshops to teach people how to live with bears. But the other side of the coin is that the bear is going to have to make some changes. It looks like more and more they are going to have to learn how to live with people in order to survive.
``It's inevitable that if we're going to have bears in the wild, both people and bears are going to have to learn how to live with each other. We can have schools for people and we can literally have schools for bears.''