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Is the grizzly bear headed for extinction as the emblem of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks?

A branding committee of FWP employees is considering a new version of the bear that has snarled from their shirt sleeves, letterheads, signposts and pickup trucks since World War II.

Reproducing the logo and type face is problematic in the digital media world, said Vivaca Crowser, who’s on the 15-member statewide panel.

“We’ve looked at a variety of things, everything from keeping it as is, changing it completely or trying to clean it up so it reproduces better,” said Crowser, information and education manager for FWP’s Missoula-based Region 2.

It’s one of a number of ideas as the agency looks to bring “consistent new visual guidelines” to its brand, Crowser said. They’re ideas combed from staff and public listening sessions around the state in the summer of 2015 under ’15 and Forward. The initiative was aimed at updating the agency vision and goals for the succeeding 10-plus years. 

But the prospect of a different logo doesn’t sit well for some, who argue that the current one is among the most recognizable logos in the American West.

“I’m extremely disappointed that our old logo might be going away,” FWP biologist Shawn Stewart of Red Lodge wrote in a recent letter to the agency. “I would appreciate the committee’s consideration of some of the values our current logo has represented historically and still represents today.”

“I’m very opposed to what they’re doing,” said Terry Lonner of Bozeman. “I’ve seen the proposed logo that they’re thinking about to rebrand the department, so to speak. It’s just a silhouette type of thing, and it doesn’t have any history behind it.”

Lonner retired from FWP in 1998 as chief of wildlife research after nearly 30 years with the department. In 2005 he produced the documentary “Back From the Brink: Montana’s Wildlife Legacy” for FWP, then teamed up with Harold Picton on a book, “Montana’s Wildlife Legacy: Decimation to Restoration.”

The story of the bear that came to represent the department dates back 75 years.

In 1942, Lloyd “Mac” McDowell and Marshall Moy, both Montana Fish and Game field men, were traveling by horseback on a moose survey in the Absarokee Wilderness northeast of Gardiner. A huge silvertip appeared on the trail and stopped not 75 feet ahead. It seemed ready to charge as McDowell, on the lead horse, quickly dismounted, grabbed his .270 rifle from the scabbard and shot the bear, breaking its front shoulder.

“He let out a large roar and lunged forward toward me, but rolled sideways off the trail,” McDowell recalled in a letter he sent to his daughter, Mitzi Stonehocker of Thompson Falls, a couple of years before his death in 1999.

McDowell said he reloaded and followed the bear down the mountainside through heavy brush.

“When I caught up to him, he was going in circles and clawing everything in sight. It took three more shots before I got in a killing one to the base of his skull,” McDowell wrote.

There was a “rogue bear” in the country at the time. It had gotten through a trap door into the root cellar at Hellroaring Cabin but couldn’t fit out the same way. “When he decided to leave he just pushed the whole floor up and made a new exit,” McDowell said.

In another instance, the bear couldn’t get through a bear-proof door barred by old crosscut saws nailed to it, but tore a paw and apparently ripped a claw out trying. He climbed on the roof and tore a hole large enough to get inside.

The bear McDowell killed measured seven feet long and weighed an estimated 600 to 700 pounds. It had a missing claw and a cut paw.

The grizzly wound up hanging on McDowell’s office wall in Helena, where its menacing fangs and a distinctive crooked jaw caught the eye of a department official in 1943. Hector LaCass, a draftsman, produced a lifelike drawing of it, including the curved jaw, that was adopted by the agency as its first official logo.

Lonner pointed out that Montana has since designated the grizzly bear as its official state animal.

“The grizzly is really a solid symbol of wilderness, just because of their need for a lot of room to roam and live,” he said.

Stewart said when the logo was adopted in the 1940s it was said to “commemorate the early workers and their efforts to conserve Montana’s wildlife resources.”

“That sentiment remains valid,” he said in his letter. “To me the logo is a strong representation of ‘recovery.’ Certainly as we see the grizzly being delisted in the Yellowstone ecosystem the logo is a great representation of current recovery. But recovery is a huge part of the story of many wildlife species since 1942 — not just the grizzly bear.”

Stonehocker said hers remains a family of Montana hunters. She keeps a close eye on the bearskin that symbolizes so much about the state and its conservation history. She’s collected an assortment of memorabilia in association with it, including the plaster taxidermy mold that her father used as an ashtray for his pipe.

“Everywhere I take it they go wild,” Stonehocker said of the bearskin exhibit.

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Mitzi Stonehocker of Thompson Falls is shown in 1997 with the bearskin that served as a model for the logo of what's now Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Stonehocker's father, Lloyd McDowell, shot the grizzly in the Absarokee Wilderness in 1942. 

After all these years it needs about $2,500 worth of work, she figures. She’d like to take it back to Jonas Brothers Taxidermy in Colorado, which made the original mount all those years ago.

She’s offered it to Fish, Wildlife and Parks but said the department wasn’t interested.

“I’m 63, and I really want that bear placed before I die,” said Stonehocker, who’s retired but says personal and family health issues are a priority.

“I just don’t have the right connections yet, and I just don’t have the time.”

As for the logo, Crowser stressed that no decision has been made and may not be finalized for up to six months. Recommendations on anything the branding committee is working on will be sent to director Martha Williams’ office in Helena for final approval.

Cost of a change in logo is a consideration, though Crowser said it’s too early to put a price tag on it. A changeover wouldn't be a one-shot deal but phased in as vehicles and uniforms are replaced. 

“We want to make a decision that is responsible budget-wise. That's a big concern,” she said. “Without having a decision in hand or anything, and not knowing whether it would be phased in over months or even years, it’s just hard to say.”

While FWP faces its own cuts, it hardly taps the state general fund and thus is not as affected by the current budget crisis as other departments.

The bulk of FWP programs are funded with hunting and fishing license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and fishing equipment.

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