Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) As grizzly bears slumber in their high mountain dens, grizzly bear supporters flocked to the Wilma Theater to see a new documentary and share their love of and concern for the wilderness icon.

Hundreds of locals wandered around the lobby and floor of the Wilma Theater Thursday evening as giant projected images of grizzly bears, owls and bobcats walked the theater walls. The haunting tones of a Native American flute played by musician Teague Goodvoice competed with the shouts of volunteers winding through the crowd offering the chance to buy raffle tickets. While some people claimed their seats, others clustered around the tables of several wildlife advocacy groups, signing petitions and buying swag.

About 45 minutes after the doors opened, the Wilma staff locked the doors as the theater filled to capacity - 755 - and probably slightly over. It was an enthusiastic turnout to see a free showing of the documentary “Return of the Grizzly” and hear some notable speakers.

Produced by the Livingston-based nonprofit, Save the Yellowstone Grizzly, the 37-minute film is touring towns in Montana and Idaho trying to raise awareness about the need for human-bear coexistence, particularly in regions that connect grizzly bear populations, and questions whether delisting now would harm the bear.

“As always, Missoula shows up,” said Missoula Mayor Andrea Davis. “We can have a good time, have art and culture, and have science on top of it.”

Davis was asked at the last minute to step in for long-time Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks bear biologist Jamie Jonkel, who is featured in the film. Jonkel has been working for several years with Missoula’s Bear Smart Working Group, which has recently seen some significant progress in getting Missoulians to be more careful with garbage, a big attractant for bears.

“If we don’t have grizzly bears in Montana in 40 years, and we haven’t figured out a way to connect all the island forest-service mountain range areas, it’s going to be a sad day, to me,” Jonkel says in the film. “We don’t want to see these species blink out in the lower 48 like grizzly bears, fishers, wolverines. It means we aren’t doing our job caretaking for the land.”

Davis highlighted the strides that Missoula and surrounding communities like Potomac have made, including requiring bear-resistant garbage cans.

“Missoulians are aware that we live in wildlife habitat and we want to live respectfully and safely. For the sake of people, for the sake of bears, this is something that will improve our community not only for the two-legged but the four-legged,” Davis said. “It’s the least we can do, while we live in this beautiful place we call Montana, in this beautiful place we call Missoula, to do what we can to keep our amazing large predators in good health.”

An old, female grizzly was relocated to the North Fork of the Flathead drainage in 2019. (Montana FWP)
An old, female grizzly was relocated to the North Fork of the Flathead drainage in 2019. (Montana FWP)

Jonkel wasn’t the only celebrity who was notably absent. Author Doug Peacock - who serves as a guiding figure in the documentary along with narrator Jeff Bridges - couldn’t attend because he fell late last year and broke his femur. The documentary was originally scheduled to be screened in Missoula on Dec. 7, but it was postponed due to Peacock’s mishap.

Emcee Chuck Irestone said Peacock has recovered and sent along a message for the crowd.
“Ten months ago, Alaska Fish and Game was ordered to conduct an aerial hunt and kill all the bears and wolves they saw from helicopters. Ninety-four brown (grizzly) bears, including mothers and 11 cubs, five black bears and five wolves were shot. If the grizzly is delisted, the states will take over management and the delisting will make trophy hunting a foregone conclusion in Montana. The Alaska massacre teaches us how easily a state can lose bears. I don’t think the Yellowstone grizzly can survive such intense killing,” Peacock said in his statement.

Yaak Valley author Rick Bass took Peacock’s place, and Irestone had the crowd welcome him with a wolf howl instead of applause. Bass - who wrote “The Lost Grizzlies” about his trip in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains with Peacock to find traces of extirpated grizzly populations - read a compelling essay about what Montana stands to lose if grizzly bears aren’t afforded the mobility and habitat they need to survive.

Bass said bears, like people, are already facing the huge challenge of a hotter, drier climate, which creates an even greater need for them to be able to migrate to areas that harbor better food and security. The lack of connectivity between recovery areas is why Missoula federal district judge Dana Christensen relisted the Yellowstone grizzly bear population in 2018 and required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prove that bears can migration with some assurance of safety.

Bass criticized the state of Montana’s recent move to trap and transport bears between recovery areas, calling it a “bastardized, lonely-hearted, uber-monorail system in which the deportees’ face dramatically higher rate of mortality.”

“Bears are not rainbow trout to be raised in a hatchery before being dumped in a lake,” Bass said. “They are the original architects of our wildness, they are the original architects of this place we profess to love. The wild country of the Yellowstone and the Yaak beckons, as does that of the Bitterroot and the Bears Paw.”

James Holt of the Nez Perce tribe, who was also in the film, told some of the Nez Perce stories inspired by grizzly bears and encouraged the crowd to ask U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Martha Williams to keep the grizzly bear on the Endangered Species list.

“It’s unfortunate that grizzly bear has to prove his worth on the land,” Holt said. “I hope that the people can understand that they can take action, they can let their voices be known, to step forward and say that they want grizzlies and wolves on the landscape to help care for the land, to help give something for generations to come.”

The film event moves on to Helena on Monday and Jackson Hole, Wyo., on Tuesday. A showing is also being considered for Lewistown.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at