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Polar Bear Field Courses Offer Experiential Learning

August 10th, 2016

Polar Bear in Fireweed

A plump summer polar bear in the fireweed


The Great Bear Foundation offers high-quality, low-impact experiential learning opportunities in polar bear habitat. Our summer field course, Berries, Belugas and Bears just wrapped up in Churchill, Manitoba. Our group spanned multiple generations and enjoyed exploring the tundra, picking berries, learning about wildflowers, beachcombing, and watching belugas with their calves in the Churchill River. A plump polar bear tiptoed through the fireweed, and the night owls in the group were rewarded with a spectacular northern lights show, thanks to clear weather and solar activity.

Limited space is available for our fall polar bear trips in October and November. These trips coincide with peak polar bear season in Churchill, as the bears migrate to Cape Churchill, waiting for the first sea ice to form, to break their summer fast. When the ice forms, the bears can return to the ice to hunt their staple food, the ringed seal. Our October course offers an overview of arctic ecology with a focus on polar bears, while our November course sheds light on how humans and polar bears share habitat.

All field courses primarily focus on observing polar bears in their natural habitat, while minimizing our impacts on the bears and their habitat. Evening lectures, slideshows, and guest speakers complement our field observations.

Field courses are open to adults and children of all backgrounds, and proceeds directly fund our bear conservation initiatives. Click here to sign up today!

Charles Jonkel Memorial Celebration July 16

June 10th, 2016

Memorial celebration for Charles Jonkel Saturday, July 16, 2016 from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM at Missoula’s Bonner Park. Please join us in celebrating the life and work of the Great Bear Foundation’s cofounder and long-serving President.
Final Memorial Flyer

Click here to download the PDF flyer.

In Memory of Dr. Charles Jonkel

April 13th, 2016

Chuck on Hudson Bay

You remember teacher singing who Walking Bear
was as you scratch your joy deep in smooth, hard stone
and Walking Bear comes finally home.

-Vic Charlo, “First Polar Bear” for Chuck Jonkel

I am heartbroken to pass on the news that the Great Bear Foundation’s co-founder and President Emeritus, Dr. Charles Jonkel passed away in Missoula last night, April 12, 2016.

It is an emotional time for us at the Great Bear Foundation as we say goodbye to Chuck, but at the same time, I am struck by the impact that Chuck had on so many lives–human, bear, and all living things he encountered and fought for. He leaves behind a legacy of bear biology, conservation, community involvement, social justice, and perhaps most of all, generosity and love.

When I first met Chuck at the University of Montana in the late 90s, I had no idea he would change the course of my life. It is a privilege to carry on his work and legacy through the Great Bear Foundation. I’ve often tried to pin down the most important impact Chuck has made on me, and it’s very difficult. He taught me so much about bears, wildlife, and conservation, but the most important thing he taught me was how to live a good and righteous life, and that is something I will carry with me always.

Chuck inspired, taught, and befriended so many people everywhere he went. He was not afraid to speak his heart and mind, and at times he could be an ornery old bear, but he made his imprint on all of us in the world of bear conservation. We will miss him terribly, but with a heart that generous and an impact that great, we’ll enjoy his legacy on into the future.

Chuck shared that he hoped to be reincarnated as a polar bear. He had a den picked out on North Twin Island, lined with tundra flowers. When Hudson Bay breaks up this summer, there will surely be another polar bear coming ashore to find that den.

Dr. Frank Tyro and I have been working for many years now on a documentary film on Chuck’s life and legacy. This preview was cut before Chuck’s death (an updated cut will air at the upcoming International Wildlife Film Festival awards ceremony April 22nd), but it pays tribute to his life and legacy. I hope that it will bring some solace to those who are feeling his loss. Click here to watch the preview.

Shannon Donahue
Executive Director

Click here to make a contribution to fund the archiving of Jonkel’s body of work..

Click here to make a contribution to the Jonkel documentary project..

Click here for the Montana Public Radio story.

Stretch Your Donation through Give Local on May 3rd

April 8th, 2016

Give Local May 3rd

Give Local on May 3rd

The Great Bear Foundation has an opportunity to stretch donations through a 24 hour online giving event through the Give Local initiative on May 3rd. No matter where you live, you can visit the Give Local Missoula County website on May 3rd to contribute to our programs through this powerful, one-day giving challenge to raise funds for local nonprofits.

Last year, the Missoula Community Foundation’s Give Local Missoula County initiative raised over $270,000 for local nonprofits. The Great Bear Foundation raised $2285 from 31 donors that day. This kind of giving event is especially useful to nonprofits like us because it allows us to use those contributions where they are needed most, as opposed to grant funds, which tend to be restricted to specific areas. Nonprofits depend on individual contributions and fundraisers to keep our projects and programs running strong.

The Give Local initiative stretches individual contributions with funds from a locally sponsored “stretch pool”, making your contribution go further.

Whether you live in Missoula County or elsewhere, it’s easy to participate in this 24 hour giving event. On May 3rd, simply visit the Give Local Missoula County website and find Great Bear Foundation under the Animals category. Click here to go directly to our giving page.

Thank you for your support!

New Field Course on Sharing Habitat with Polar Bears

January 14th, 2016

Polar Bear Face by Jeremy Patrick

Polar Bear Face by Jeremy Patrick


The Great Bear Foundation is pleased to announce the launch of a new arctic ecology field course, Sharing Habitat with Polar Bears: how people and polar bears coexist. In addition to general polar bear ecology, this course takes an in-depth look at community responses to living with polar bears, how Indigenous peoples have historically coexisted with bears, and how we as global citizens share a planet with polar bears in rapidly changing times. This course is designed to stand alone, or as a follow-up to our introductory field course, Polar Bears 101.

Polar Bears 101 is our staple Arctic Ecology Field Course, now in its 32nd year. Polar Bears 101 offers a broad overview of polar bear ecology, biology, behavior, and conservation status, with additional material on photography, northern cultures, climate change, and the Arctic.

Both courses are open to the public of all ages and backgrounds, although families with children may be more suited to Polar Bears 101, as Sharing Habitat with Polar Bears offers a more rigorous curriculum and focus. Both field courses are primarily based in field observations, with guest speakers and classroom programs at night. The sessions are timed to coincide with the peak of the annual polar bear aggregation around Cape Churchill, and we do not anticipate bear activity being greater during one session than the other.

40 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) from Salish Kootenai College are available for each session at no extra cost. Field course price includes train transportation beginning and ending in Winnipeg, accommodations and meals in Churchill, course tuition, and CEUs. We are happy to work with students at educational institutions and their advisors to design independent study projects through their home institution.

Field courses sell out quickly, so register today!

Countdown to Hibernation

October 9th, 2015

by Monica Perez-Watkins

Black bear with Cubs by Jeremy Patrick

Black bear with Cubs by Jeremy Patrick


A diminished wild food supply is drawing bears into towns across Western Montana and wildlife officials continue to receive calls about bears in residential areas, especially those with fruit trees. Apples are an easy, but dangerous, source of calories for bears in the fall. Apples lure bears into residential areas, where they quickly find other food sources, such as garbage and bird feeders. Bears then become labeled as problem bears for their proximity to humans, dumpster diving, and fruit tree climbing. Often, the first time a particular bear is found in a residential area, it is relocated away from the urban environment. However, second offenders are usually not given a second chance and killed by officials.

This is an important time of year for bears. They are busy preparing for hibernation by entering the intense state of hyperphagia, searching for easy and plentiful food to pack on the pounds for survival through the winter, when they will go several months without eating or even passing waste. In addition, pregnant females, which give birth over winter, cannot produce cubs without the required stored fat and energy necessary to birth and produce nutritious milk for newborns.

While in the winter den, a lot is happening inside a bear’s body. The body temperature drops by about 12 degrees, breathing slows to about 10 beats per minute, and waste is recycled into amino acids and protein, essential in cub development. Urea, usually eliminated as waste, gets broken down into Nitrogen, and released back into the blood stream, maintaining muscle and organ tissue, while fat is broken down to provide water and calories to sustain the bear through the hibernation period. Cholesterol remains in check thanks to ursodeoxycholic acid, produced in the bile, rather than hardening arteries as it does in humans. While crucial to bears, it is also the reason thousands are kept in horrific conditions on bear bile farms in several Asian countries. Bear bile has been used in traditional Asian medicine for centuries and usage persists despite synthetic and plant-derived alternatives. (But there is hope. Public sentiment is shifting across Asia, while Vietnam recently announced it would phase out the use of bear bile by 2020.)

Bears can also lose up to a third of their body weight during hibernation and, if enough fat was not secured in the fall, starvation may occur in the den. Additionally, upon emergence from the den in early spring, wild foods may not yet be abundant, causing additional stress.

But enough about winter, back to what we can do for the bears out right now…

We can easily help out bears by securing all attractants around our homes to ensure that bears stay safe, while making it more difficult for bears to get into conflict with humans in the first place. A bear attractant is anything left out that gives off an odor: unpicked fruit trees, garbage, pet food, birdseed, urban livestock, and compost, among many others. It doesn’t even have to be food or food waste to attract bears—oddly enough, bears are also attracted to petroleum products, including gasoline! A gas can left outside this time of year could easily become a bear’s “toy”. There are many simple and quick fixes to secure attractants, such as leaving garbage in a secured garage until the morning of pickup. There is even a program to help with the cost of electric fencing to protect livestock, fruit, or garbage. There is also plenty of free help with fruit removal in the Missoula area.

The Great Bear Foundation’s Bears and Apples program makes it easier for people with fruit trees by removing fruit and putting it to good use. We have been at the forefront of community efforts to prevent human-wildlife conflict by organizing community efforts to secure and eliminate bear attractants in residential areas for over a decade. You can help this effort by donating to the Bears & Apples project, volunteering to help pick apples, and taking steps in your own neighborhood to make sure you and your neighbors are not attracting bears to the area. Bears & Apples is a fun and exciting project, but it takes all of our time and resources, and a lot of help from volunteers, to keep the project going. Your contribution, of any amount, will go a long way toward improving safety for humans and bears alike. We are grateful for the support of the individual donors and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative for funding this project.

Human-bear conflict is a yearly problem, but with this fall’s wild food supply at one of the lowest levels in Western Montana in nearly two decades, bears are searching far and wide and venturing into new and urban areas for food to make it through the winter. Remember, bear problems are easier to prevent than to solve. Often, we just need the will and desire to act.

The Great Bear Foundation is a volunteer-driven, grassroots organization sustained by your donations.
We work hard to keep overhead costs low, so you can be assured that your contribution will go directly into bear conservation and education projects, and help us keep our doors open. Please help us to help the bears by donating to our projects today.

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