The bear is a potent symbol of wilderness. And as such, it is often an object of both fear and fascination.
For this reason, it is somehow fitting that a small group of Montana bear boosters has formed the Great Bear Foundation. Barely three months old, it is envisioned by its founders as evolving into a powerful organization dedicated to polishing the bear's image, protecting this formidable creature from human encroachment, backing research into bear behavior, and otherwise furthering the fortunes of the world's ursine population.
''The bear is a symbol of what's right with the world,'' asserts Charles Jonkel, a bearded bear expert at the University of Montana, who is supporting and advising the new group.
Bears are a lot like people, Dr. Jonkel says. They both eat meat and vegetation. They have similar needs for space and like the same kind of habitat. They are highly adaptable. And when humans and bears meet, the bears even treat people as if they were other bears.
When the bears leave, ''it takes the wild out of wilderness,'' adds Frank Ponikvar, a Missoula, Mont., artist who is one of the organization's founding members.
Backers argue that the bear does not deserve its bad reputation. ''People's fear is really way out of proportion,'' Jonkel argues.
Of course, the members of the foundation are not saying that bears are docile. They do represent a danger to people who might encounter them. Rangers are constantly having to remind park visitors to stay clear of bears, who can often seem quite tame.
But as an example of public paranoia on the subject, he mentions the reaction a few years ago in Indiana when one little black bear wandered south into the state from Michigan. ''Whole counties came to a halt,'' he says indignantly. ''They formed a big posse (and) hunted that little bear down. . . .''
Many native Westerners, on the other hand, have learned to coexist with bears. An example, Jonkel says, is Millie Morin of Mission Valley, Mont. Although she isn't more than 5 feet 1 inch and weighs no more than 90 pounds, she gets along with the six to eight grizzlies and black bears that live in the bushy land next to her house. ''She has a picket fence around her place. Just outside of that there is a bear run. She stays on her side and the bears stay on their side,'' he explains.
''Easterners don't know how to encounter a tree, let alone a bear,'' Jonkel grumbles. But many Easterners are heading west and settling in new subdivisions. They are bringing their fear and ignorance with them, increasing political pressure to eliminate local bear populations even in places like Montana, he says. In addition, the new westward migration is cutting deeper into the habitat upon which the dwindling bear population depends. And the same thing is also happening around the world, he says.
''Bears need room to move. They need clean air and space . . . ,'' says Bill Callaghan, a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks botanist and another founding member of the organization.
While human pressure on the bear is increasing, research into its behavior and habitat needs has been slashed by as much as two-thirds in the last few years, Jonkel estimates. So, a major aim of the foundation is to become a private funding source for this research.
The highest priority will be determining how bears use their habitat. An effort should also be made, the group says, to find out how the dynamite blasting, used in oil and gas exploration, affects bears. While starting with grizzlies in the United States, the organization hopes to support bear research in other parts of the world, too.
Founders also see the organization buying prime bear habitat and engaging in lobbying in the future. ''The key thing that bears need is a perpetual bank account, and we hope to provide them with one,'' says Mr. Callaghan.
The Great Bear Foundation has been incorporated as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization in Montana. It has applied for federal tax-exempt status but has not yet received it. It has just started a membership drive and has designed a bear-lover's T-shirt to sell to raise money. Now all it needs is about 5 million other bear lovers willing to pitch in.