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Read "Tracking Glacier's Mighty Grizzlies" in the July/August 2000 ADVENTURE.

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q and a
Doug Peacock
Veteran of the Grizzly Wars
Age "My God…58"
Home Livingston, Montana
Favorite Place "The Grizzly Hilton"
Past Life Green Beret Medic
    "I tend to like the animals that can kill and eat me."

Despite the name, Doug Peacock doesn't strut or show. Doug does. In the sixties the “cranky buzzard” made his way from Michigan to Vietnam, where as an Army medic he fought to stitch together, wound by wound, some semblance of sanity.

After the war Peacock haunted the home front for a while, found himself utterly incompatible, and exiled himself to the wilderness. Finding it less wild than he remembered, he set out to make it more so. With brother-in-arms Edward Abbey, Peacock giddily pioneered the practice of “monkey wrenching,” sabotaging wilderness-eating endeavors like logging and land development.

Abbey's 1975 roman à clef The Monkey Wrench Gang would become a kind of comic bible for immoderate environmentalists. It would also make Peacock (reimagined as George Hayduke, “night-time trouble-maker, barroom brawler, free-time lover”) a folk hero.

These days Peacock dismisses his radical rep as “mainly talk,” preferring to discuss his life's true work, making the world safe for grizzly bears. He's been studying and fraternizing with grizzlies for three decades now, two of which are covered in his best-seller, Grizzly Years. Asked to define himself, Peacock replies, "I'm a defender of wild causes. All of 'em. Anyplace."

  Why did you go into the wilderness after Vietnam?

Like so many other veterans, I was so out of sorts when I came back. I couldn't be around other people. I required a great deal of solitude. For me, the best place for that solitude is out in the hills, mountains, and valleys, by myself. Some people can get that same feeling in their backyard, and I don't begrudge them a bit.

Anyway, I camped out, and by the end of the first summer I'd run into grizzly bears. They utterly riveted my attention. Which turned out to be exactly what I needed.

  Why grizzlies?

Because you really can't be self-indulgent in grizzly country. You've got something bigger than you out there, something that can kill and eat you any time it chooses to, though it seldom does.

Being among grizzlies forces humility. And that's what I needed, because that's the emotional posture behind learning: humility.

  When was the last time you felt that humility?

Just last week in Yellowstone. I'm in grizzly country at least a couple of times a week. I can't live without that feeling. I would utterly despair.

  What's the most memorable grizzly encounter you've had?

There've been lots of them. The most memorable experiences are the ones where the bear really granted me quarter, had the grace to let me out of a situation where it really had the right to just chew my shoulder off. That's a great, incredible lesson—the lesson of muscular restraint.

I still think about the time that I ran into a black grizzly on a ridge top after he finished an inconclusive fight with a sow and her yearling cub. I had to get past him on this knife-edge ridge to get to my little camp because a winter storm was blowing in. I decided I was going to try my luck with him. He was only 30 feet [9 meters] away when he noticed me.

By the way, this is a bear that I know well. He's a cantankerous son of a bitch. Some years he cases and attacks and tries to kill all other bears. But he was my favorite grizzly there, this black grizzly.

When he saw me he came and slammed his paws down, 15 feet [5 meters] from me, and stopped. Stared right at me. Bears only do that when they're being confrontational.

His ears were back, the ruff on his neck was up—all signs that I going to get charged. With a sow grizzly you might just get chewed on and you can play dead and maybe get away. I don't really know what happens with a big male like that.

He stared at me for what felt like hours, but was probably only a minute or so. Then, almost sadly, he flicked his ears and looked off to the side, and I felt something pass between us.

He disappeared into the bush, and I shot by and got my ass up to the top and built a fire, which I almost never do in grizzly country, because I don't want to bother bears.

But then after 45 minutes, here came the same grizzly. I could hear him in the brush. And though it was dark by then, I could see his eyes glowing red from the firelight.

He came all the way up to my fire, and I got some firebrands and backed him down the hill. But an hour later he came up the other side. This scene repeated itself until about two in the morning, when I finally passed out.
  Are grizzlies better off today than when you started working with them?

The situation's certainly not better. The fact is we've lost habitat every single day, for all of that time. The bears have less places where they can go to roam, eat, and live their bearish life.

  What's chewing up grizzly habitat?

Around Yellowstone it's mainly a case of development of trophy second homes—the worst kind of development in the world, by rich people who don't need these places, who don't live in them.

  Where do you stand on property rights?

Nobody owns the land. The developer only got it from people who stole it from natives, who never owned it in the first place. We're lucky to live here. We're all immigrants.

  Would your neighbors agree with you?

Most of my neighbors are recent rich immigrants—dealing cocaine in Alaska or making money in California. But there are some ranchers here. They're besieged themselves.

The ranchers used to be really responsible stewards, but they tend to be intolerant of predators. Still, they're a hell of a lot more pleasant to be around than the people with the trophy homes who are raising llamas.

How would you describe your relationship with Edward Abbey?

He was one cranky son of a bitch. It was the most difficult close friendship I ever had. But we made a wonderful peace in the last week of his life. I was with him the last night of his life, I was with him when he died, and I buried him.

I've come to admire him a lot, because there's such a void in the so-called conservation-wilderness-environment movement without his cranky, acid, funny voice. No one has quite filled those shoes yet.
Do you ever think about your own death?

You know, I've been dreaming all winter of a place I call the Grizzly Hilton, a couple of stunted trees between which I used to pitch a tent when I was filming grizzly bears. It's up near Glacier [National Park].

If I had to go somewhere to die, I think I'd go up there. The bears could have me. My large carcass could feed a bear family for a good part of a week.

  Before and during the Vietnam War, you carried a map of the Rockies with you. Why?

I was so homesick for the West. I would sit there and just stare at the blank spots in the map and imagine what was there. I would sort of fly over those spots like a cranky buzzard, over a peak, looking in a basin, looking at a great cirque lake. It was an anchor of sanity.

  How far do you think it's acceptable to go to protect a wild place?

I think you need to be completely responsible for your own actions, especially if it's illegal—what's right isn't always legal, and vice versa. You ought to take your licks if you get caught. No whining.

At the same time you've got to respect life. Limit your ecotage [ecological sabotage] to PR stunts and property damage.

  What were the most dramatic steps you've taken for conservation—ecotage?

Ed Abbey and I used to do a little bit of this and a little bit of that—the occasional release of a brake on a mountain bulldozer, which probably polluted some poor little canyon. One time we found an oil company's drill hole in Escalante [Utah]. We filled up the hole with all the used-up diamond drill bits and sent a bunch of pipe whistling down the hole.

But mainly we just talked. And talk is cheap. The Monkey Wrench Gang is a fine piece of fiction. The little acts behind it were more like nocturnal recreation than serious politics.

  How do you feel about hunting?

I think it is the human condition. I think that our intelligence itself was largely evolved from being a hunting animal. That connection shouldn't be let go of.

On the other hand, sport hunting in the 20th century with weapons capable of bringing down a B-52 is highly questionable. Trophy hunting is especially wrong. I think that you should eat what you kill.

I wouldn't—not for a cool million—kill a bear.
How about shooting wild animals with a camera?

I think that every time we film and study and photograph these bears we make them a little less wild.

Also, I like my wildlife photography presented with the proper context. So many pictures are presented as though the animals are unaware of the photographer, as though the animal is in its natural state.

You can always tell from a grizzly photo whether there was a human being around, even if it's just a close-up.

  How can you tell if a bear is aware of a photographer just by looking at a photo?

It depends on their degree of dominance. If he's aware of a photographer, a big dominant bear will have his mouth open, looking pretty relaxed. But his eyes are sweeping like crazy, catching every little movement.

With less dominant bears you'll see slobbering when they're really agitated. You'll see the head turned to the side. It wants to tell you, If you move on, I'll move on.

  Have grizzlies become too used to humans in U.S. parks?

Well, due to habitat loss, the bears are moving into roadside habitats that have been previously unused—unused because grizzlies don't really like people.

We had an asshole at Yellowstone who went and petted a grizzly cub on the ass. The mother immediately turned around and charged him and, inexplicably, stopped two feet [0.6 meter] away. She should have just chewed this geek to pieces.

  What do you do for a living?

I'm not much good at income. I do everything for therapy: walk, build, write—you name it.

I make what money I do from writing and giving lectures. I've got another memoir that'll be in galleys by the end of the year. It's called Walking It Off, and it's been a laborious pain in the ass.

  How much wilderness is enough?

Ed Abbey was asked that question decades ago, and he said “at least as much as we've got left.”

Well, we've lost a lot since then, and we need more than we've got left. So we not only have to save every inch of what we've got left, we've got to reclaim some wild lands, or these grizzlies are not going to make it.

  What would you say to convince a land developer or a logger to lay off wild land?

I'd tell them that our collective survival is dependent on these places in a very real way. Without these animals there'd be no context for fear. Fear has always been the basis for our humanity and our intelligence.

We evolved in places whose remnants today we call the wilderness. And I think that no species can persist without sustaining the conditions of its genesis.

So, really, we are as much endangered as the grizzly bears. The fate of humans and grizzlies is a single, collective one.

—Ted Chamberlain

Portrait by William Campbell


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