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Aug 27, 2019

Doug Peacock on the Fight to Protect Grizzly Bears

Meet the man trying to keep faces like this one safe. (Photo: Thomas Lefebvre/Unsplash)
Meet the man trying to keep faces like this one safe.

Doug Peacock took an unlikely path to becoming an icon of conservation. Following two tours in the Vietnam War as a Green Beret medic, he sought solace in the American Wilderness, where he began observing and then filming grizzly bears. He believed the bears saved his life, and he felt compelled to return the favor. Many people know Peacock as the inspiration for George Hayduke, the infamous character in The Monkey Wrench Gang, the 1975 novel by Ed Abbey. Over the years, Peacock authored a number of books about his journey. At the 2019 Mountainfilm festival, in Telluride, Colorado, he sat down with veteran radio producer Scott Carrier to offer an enlightened perspective on the history of bears in this country, share some hysterical stories about his own encounters with the animals, and give his take on the challenges that grizzlies face today.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are Dispatches, stories from our writers in the field. 

(clip from Grizzly Country begins)

Doug Peacock:The big bear stopped 30 feet in front of me. I slowly worked my hand into my bag and pulled out the Magnum. I peered down the gun barrel into the dull red eyes of the huge grizzly. We stared at each other for what might've been seconds, but it felt like hours. I knew once again that I was not going to pull the trigger. My shooting days were over. I lowered the pistol. The giant bear flicked his ears and looked off to the side. I felt something pass between. I didn't know that the force of that encounter would shape my life for decades to come. 

(clip fades)

Michael Roberts (host): The voice you just heard was Doug Peacock from the opening scene of Grizzly Country, a short film released late last year by director Ben Moon. The film tells Peacock’s story. He served two tours in the Vietnam War as Green Beret medic, and he came home desperately out of sorts. He saw comfort and solitude and the American wilderness, and began observing and then filming grizzly bears. He would go on to dedicate his life to protecting them. 

I’m Michael Roberts with the Outside Podcast. Like a lot of people who read books about nature and the outdoors, I first heard about Doug Peacock when I found out that he was the inspiration for George Hayduke, the infamous character in The Monkey Wrench Gang, the 1975 novel by Ed Abbey. Only later did I learn about his decades of environmental work. Much of it was done with Round River Conservation Studies, a group he co-founded to develop strategies to preserve and restore wild places. 

He's also been an outspoken advocate for the bears in Yellowstone National Park. Peacock has chronicled his journey in a series of memoirs, but early this summer, I was lucky enough to hear him describe the surprising history of bears in this country as well as share some hysterical stories and give his take on the big challenges that grizzlies face today. This all came out during a talk at Mountain Film, an annual festival held in Telluride, Colorado. Mountain Film brings together an extraordinary mix of both films and people. 

In this case, Peacock spoke with veteran radio producer Scott Carrier. You've probably heard him on NPR or episodes of This American Life. We've been looking forward to sharing their conversation ever since. We're going to drop in -- Carrier asked Peacock to describe what the lives of bears look like before Europeans arrived. 

Scott Carrier: Further away, white people, European contact. How many grizzly bears were there in North America, let’s just say what's now the lower 48, how many bears were there before European contact? 

Peacock:This is a wild ass guess, but I’d say 50,000 to 100,000 is what you can read in books. 

Carrier: Spreading across-- 

Peacock: Well, the range is -- first of all, grizzlies came over to this continent about 70,000 years ago and so they were here. The first Americans that came over the Bering Strait, more than 15,000, maybe older -- they were walking in the tracks of grizzlies all the way, coming across the Bering Strait, coming down the corridor, or going down the coast. And the grizzly range was from the Arctic Sea all the way down to the state of Durango in Mexico. I found sign of the last Mexican grizzly in the Sierra Madres in 1985. So they persisted that long. Almost as long as -- Colorado and the Sierra Madres have a lot in common. 

Carrier: And what is the relationship between the grizzly bear and the human beings? 

Peacock: Grizzly bears and native americans, indigenous people, and they ranged east out to the Mississippi river, but all the way through the mountain country -- best habitat of all is probably California. The relationship, well it was they lived in the same places, they ate the same foods and they coexisted until Western European firearms show up in the scene. They coexisted for at least 15,000 years.

Carrier: So how did people see the bear? I mean, from what I've heard, there was a remarkably similar perspective of human beings looking at bears, but what was that like? 

Peacock: Grizzlies are arguably the most human-like animal of all. Physically, the bear footprint looks so much like the human footprint. They stand up and look around. They have binocular vision. They discipline their kids when they mess up, cuff them up a little bit. They occupy the same habitats, and have a very low reproductive rate. The loss of any land mammal, they're right up -- polar betters, musk ox and grizzlies have very low reproductive rates. And the grizzlies, probably the lowest of all of them. 

It's the most humanlike of animals and they were regarded mostly as a sacred animal. They never referred to the grizzly directly. The best information we have from the ethnographic record, they were always called grandfather or the one who stands or something like that. There was no sport hunting of grizzlies. 

Carrier: Tell me a little bit more about the sacred or the spiritual part, the way that people thought that the bears were sacred. Where did that come from? 

Peacock: Well, it just comes from living with them, because they’re as dominant on the landscape as you are, and, especially where we have a lot of information on ceremonies from the West coast, when the humans and grizzlies lived in the same salmon stream, they were revered. The heart of plains Indian medicine, for instance, the Blackfeet is the medicine bear. The bear is the teacher of the people and that you see repeated everywhere. Because the bear can tell you where to go, what time of year, what season to get food -- he shows you what to avoid. He's a teacher and a medicine animal, and all that adds up to a relationship which we call spiritual without properly understanding the depth of it. 

Carrier: So, the European show up and then what happens with, in terms of the relationship with it bear, how do things change? 1850?

Peacock: It started with Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri and they ran into grizzlies I think in the Dakotas first. And the response to everything is shoot a ball at them at all times. In the course of their travels, they killed 45 Grizzlies, mostly for sport. They were amazed how many musket balls it took to bring down this terrible beast as they called it. That would set the tone. 

We made no effort to really understand the grizzly beyond something to be feared and shot. And we just carried those European religious views of the patriarchy and dominion with us everywhere. And we wanted control over the beast and anything that didn't suit our notions of agriculture, we killed. And it's still the same. It's a very little deep, here and there. But at least we're talking about it now. With climate change upon us all, this would be a great time to have a final reckoning, see the bear as brother bear and save this last remnant population. The most isolated and endangered of all happens to be in Yellowstone and it happens to be where I live. And so that's what I fight for. 

Carrier: So when was the first time you went to Yellowstone and what were the bears like? What was the situation? ‘Cause Yellowstone was created partly to protect wildlife. Let's not shoot him inside the park. That was the original idea righ? Inside the park, we're not going to shoot him.

So when you got there -- what year did you go there first? You were telling me yesterday.

Peacock: Well it was an accident. That's where I found grizzlies, I wasn't looking for him. I had come up the Rocky Mountain chain in 1968, up in the mountains, but the snow slowed me down and I finally ended up in the Wind River Range. A few months after Vietnam, and then at the Wind River Range, I got a malaria attack and I had to go to Yellowstone. Because comparably speaking, it was flat and the water was better. You know, I was in the east side of the Wind River. Terrible weather, man. You don't want to have a malaria attack -- so I'm back in Yellowstone, which I know a little bit and I went to this thermal area. 

I've told this story before, but I was going to go back and I had to go through the whole malaria thing, it's saying fever 105, etc. But once I came to, I was weak as a kitten and there was a thermal creak around. That's why I went there -- it started out hot, fiery hot, and ended up tepid. And until you could kind of pick the temperature you want. And I was going to be, like an old fashioned spa and go soak in hot waters and heal myself and all that junk. So one cold October day with the wind blowing about 40 miles an hour, just soaking away in warm weather in this kind of spacing out on a beautiful blue frigid sky. And I look off to my side and, about two thirds of the way down this hall, a couple of hundred feet, there's a mother grizzly bear and two yearling cubs that are really big. 

And I don't know anything about grizzly. I just read these men's magazines before going to Vietnam, you know, “Well, carry a big piece.” That was a part of the formula then. They never looked at me, these bears, didn't charge or anything. They were just eating some bluegrass and I decided I was going to climb a tree as soon as they were looking the other direction. So I watched them and they were all eating with their heads down and I stood up to make a rush for this tree and a little lodge pole on the bank. And this little tiny creek, you know, it was only six feet across. the Whirlpool-like effect of the hot waters caused me to black out. But I was terrified. And so I hit this tree, blacking out and I smashed it when my forehead, I caught a great gash and there's blood dripping down my eyes and I'm still so terrified. 

I scramble up the top of this lodgepole pine tree and then I'm up like, I mean at the very top, like the angel on a Christmas tree. And guess what? It wasn't much bigger than a Christmas tree. It was like eight feet high. And so I sat up there at the top of this little tree, the wind is blowing like a son of a bitch. I'm blue  from the cold, bleeding, naked, like a silly species of mountain (inaudible) and these grizzly bears spend 45 minutes grazing around eating grass. At one time, they came from me to you, like 15, 20 feet away. They never looked up. They knew I was up there and I was of no importance and those bears made an impression on me. That's what got me started. 

Carrier: So how many bears were there in Yellowstone at that time? 

Peacock: Nobody knows. There's a number of the newspapers repeat, which is a gigantic lie, of 136. I was living in the back country at that time alone, the only person living full time in the back country. And I don't have a clue how many bears there were, neither does anybody else. They want to start low, by making an argument saying they've increased the bearers several times over. 200 would be a ballpark. 

Carrier: At that time, in the late sixties. And they were coming up to cars and basically shaking the cars for food.

Peacock: The story of Yellowstone is the grizzly bears in Yellowstone were fed garbage by the park service for 80 years at open pit dumps. 

Carrier: That was the situation; they would come to the lodge -- 

Peacock: I mean, I'm saying, did you know, they were 80 years of eating garbage, really pretty good food, and the population was stable and up. 

But because of fear of a court case in Yellowstone called the Walker court case, everybody got paranoid. And you know that in 1967, the night of the Glacier Two,two young women were killed by different Grizzlies in Glacier Park. And all of a sudden everybody in the government is worried about litigation. They decide to cover their legal asses -- that they've got to close these dumps right away. On the otherside of this argument where the Craighead brothers, the great pioneers of grizzly bear biology, Frank and John, and they argued, if you cut these guys off cold Turkey, they're just going to go into town sites and garbage dumps and camp grounds. And that's it. 

And so the parks ever disregarded that, closed them. Right at the same time I showed up. The year I left Vietnam, that was the year they closed the dumps and, and of course the Grizzlies went into campgrounds and towns and everything else. And Frank Craighead estimates over 250 grizzly bears were killed in a five year period in that little tiny Yellowstone ecosystem. 

Carrier: By Rangers?

Peacock: By everybody, Rangers, wardens, people defending their dog food, all of these human conflicts.

Carrier: But then in ‘75, the bear was put on the list of endangered species. Is that correct?. And so how did the management change then? 

Peacock:It got better, they cleaned up things and that's what I was going to say to that guy yesterday, didn't get the time, they cleaned up things because it was a federal offense to kill a grizzly. It carried some weight in those days, which incidentally -- today, it doesn't, nobody ever prosecutes -- but that allowed the population to recover. I don't know if there's 600 bears or 500 or 700, and truthfully our methods of counting bears, it's tough. They're all based on extrapolations at some point and they try to be as scientific as they can, but there really isn't any science. It’s still in the long run, a guess. So when you see 713 Grizzlies, that's a guess. My guesses are no better than theirs.

Carrier: All right. So the way things are managed in the United States is, the federal land is controlled by the federal government, but the animals are controlled by the state.

Peacock: Unless they're an endangered species as they are now. 

Carrier: The Endangered Species Act is basically the federal government coming in and taking away the management from the states and saying, we're going to manage these animals until we recover the population to a viable population. And in Yellowstone, the plan was not only to recover the bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, but to create links with the other areas where other bears live. The other environments all the way to Canada make a big corridor, that was in the regional plan, right? Is that correct? 

Peacock: Yeah. 

Carrier: And so the federal government takes control away from the ---

Peackock: That’s a microcosm of the basic argument underlying all of this scientific babble. It's really a state's issue. It's really political. And that's why I said, recovery is impossible with an isolated population that's physically and genetically isolated. With climate change sweeping in and then the next two years, it will be clear to everyone how bad things are going to get. And just to give you an idea, the changes in climate change the habitat fast; evolution of mammals, like grizzlies and human beings, happens slow. Scientists compare the ratio of change as 1 to 10,000. The capacity for biological adaptations in the habitat are happening 10,000 times faster than [us], so we're not going to catch up with evolution. 

Carrier: We’re goners… no? I jumped ahead there?

Roberts: We'll be back with Doug Peacock and Scott Carrier after this break. 

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Speaker 9: (23:24)

Just two days before Doug Peacock and Scott Carrier spoke in Mountain Film, the federal government filed a legal brief arguing that the fish and wildlife service should be able to reinstate a 2017 rule removing grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem from the endangered species list. The bears, the government claimed, had recovered. It's the latest move in a decades-long fight over the grizzly population in the park and the surrounding lands. While the government would lose this battle, officially adding the Yellowstone bears back to the endangered species list, in early August, the fight goes on. Mid August, the Trump administration announced a major overhaul of the Endangered Species Act. 

Doug Peacock's take on all this is that the arguments in favor of de-listing Yellowstone grizzly bears have nothing to do with science -- they’re about politics and culture. 

Carrier: I want to just lay the groundwork for the lawsuit. The government steps in, takes control away from the States and says, we're going to recover these bears to -- how many was the number they said in the greater Yellowstone area? 

Peacock: It's an enormous criteria.

Carrier: :Let's say 650, somewhere around there. 

Peacock: Yeah. You shouldn't even bring it up. It's this long. 

Carrier: But the point is, they did it. They recovered the population. It was a successful program in their eyes. 

Peacock: In their argument, yes. By then, true recovery had become a political issue and the head of the team that recovered the grizzly was going to retire and he wanted a success story. Basically that's the realm in which this resided, in the realm of politics -- states, the state of Wyoming especially pushed the delist of grizzly. They wanted control. And it's not even about money. It's about their ability to kill as many Grizzlies anytime, anywhere they want, because they're in control. It's a Western dominion issue -- it has very little to do with biology these days. 

Carrier: So in 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service said we've succeeded in our goals of recovering the bear. We're going to delist the bear in 2007. Is that correct? 

Peacock: They've been talking about delisting since the 90s, but here's what happened in a nutshell. In2002, the measured winter temperatures in Yellowstone started to rise. And by 2007, 95% of the mature cone bearing white bark pine trees had died from mountain pine beetle. The whitebark pine is a five needle stone pine, high altitude, it's right up at the top of Yellowstone. What kept the pine beetle -- which is endemic, and it lived with the whitebark pine for centuries and millennia -- were cold nights like 35 below zero for three nights in a row and it killed the larva. 

Well, starting in 2002, we measured and it  warmed enough to allow the larva to [grow] over winter and decimate. You didn't need a weatherman, you could just drive around the Yellowstone ecosystem. Look at the top of the mountain, they're all red. That is the same year that they delisted the Grizzlies for the first time. And I was in the beginning of that, giving a talk at the Teton Science School, and the headline the next day was expert says, don't delist grizzlies. In that audience that night was the original head of the Forest Service. She put up 250 grand to do a survey [that] was undertook by a neighbor and friend of mine, Jesse Logan, whitebark pine biologist and retired from the Forest Service. It was pretty easy work because you could fly over it, map it by the color of dead trees and then do ground checks. One of the persons that worked on the ground checks was my son Collin. It's really kind of a family endeavor. 

We sued them, took them to court, and a wonderful Earthjustice attorney named Doug Honnold argued the case. We kicked their ass. Bears were back on the endangered species act and then they did the same thing in 2016. It's like the seven year cycle and it's not going to be very satisfactory, but it's back. The government has appealed their defeat, and we'll be back in court again. 

That's not where I would prefer to fight my battles, incidentally.

Carrier: In court? The white bark pine trees die up high. They're high elevation. 

Peacock: Certainly that's the most important single food for Yellowstone Grizzlies for centuries is the fat, nutritious nut. The pine nut of the white bark pine. It's documented because in fall, especially mothers, younger pregnant mothers, would go up there and feed them the pine nuts. It was so nutritious that their litter sizes went up and the cub survival is longer and certainly longer than it is today. And it also happened during elk hunting season and it separated grizzly bears from hunters, which is another safety thing. So it was an incredibly important food source. 

Carrier: So in elk season, the bears are up high, the elk hunters are down lower. But now their food source is gone, the trees are dead, there's no more pine nuts. And the bears come down to lower elevations, is that right? They're coming down to lower elevations, encountering the guts of dead elk that hunters have left behind. 

Peacock: There's a bunch of factors at work, and the most important one is the weather is getting hotter and drier in our forest. Fires are getting much more fierce and common. They've done a little climate science in Yellowstone Park. They know that the temperature of water is rising, for instance. But these forest fires usually come back symbiotically they come back with just lots of little lodgepoles. They're coming back as grasslands today. The forest are being replaced with grasslands, which changes -- excuse me, I wish this were vodka, or maybe a good tequila. 

But the overall effect is the amount of food per unit of habitat in Yellowstone is decreasing, so-called carrying capacity to habitat. It is declining and the bears that live there have gotta start wandering out looking for new habitat, new food. Grizzlies can pioneer new foods, but the further they move from the boundaries of the park there’s human conflicts.

Carrier: Like new houses? 

Peacock:The only way you know we're going to solve that problem is by convincing -- the key is human tolerance. That’s the kind of work that has to be done. You don't have to be very afraid of a grizzly bear. 

Carrier: So if you've got a new house up in the woods, away from town, right next to Forest Service property or something, and if a bear comes on your land, can you shoot it? 

Peacock: No. 

Carrier: What if it's messing with your garbage? 

Peacock: No, that's your garbage, your responsibility. But these kinds of laws are not being enforced today. Somebody makes a complaint, the Montana Game and Fish comes out and kills it. 

There are exceptional cases, but it's a farce today. There is no prosecution. The greatest danger to the Yellowstone grizzly today is climate change and excessive mortality, record mortality. Humans killing Grizzlies and livestock. Hunter misidentifications. And mainly self-protecting acts. But it adds up. I think there were 91known dead grizzly in this little tiny ecosystem. 

Carrier: In spite of being protected. They're still protected. But there've been 91. 

Peacock: There's no prosecution. The states are angry because they had their hunting season. They were going to open trophy hunting season. That's the big deal. They didn't get to do it. And they're taking out their vengeance, truly, on the grizzly. 

Carrier: You believe that? 

Peacock: Yeah. 

Carrier: Vengeance. Bears are being killed just to get even with the environmentalists. 

Peacock: That's my hippie-like conclusion.

Carrier: Can you talk a little bit about what you see in terms of the future from climate change type of facts? What do you see happening? 

Peacock: It comes from Round River. One of the projects we have is up in the Beaufort sea. It's creating two national parks adjacent, starting at Alaska and the ocean, all along the coast. We just added another national park at 6 million acres all the way to the Mackenzie river. That’s where I get my hearsay, my influence, my data, and it's mainly traditional wisdom. A couple of years ago, the Inuit who were hunting caribou inland had to move their seasonal hunting camps because of sea rise. They announced that before any of the Naval research labs -- it’s a pretty good lab for weather, ocean, they're a good scientific lab --they didn't even catch it up. I'm just saying that the traditional wisdom of indigenous people, it's as valid as the best available science and arguments of this kind. 

But basically every September, the sea ice is gone way beyond the continental shelf. I don't know how many hundreds of miles --my son Colin, sometimes would work with Round River -- but anyway, it's gone. Every September it's gone way out and we think at the rate it's going, in two years, it’s the whole arctic ocean. And when that happens, there’ll be feedback systems already in place, irreversible, kicking in that are really terrifying. And one of them is of course the lack of the albedo, the fact that white snow and ice reflect back radiation, which is now being absorbed into the ocean. And when all of the Arctic Ocean is gone, it's going to be absorbed so much that the methane, which has already started to leak out of the continental shelf bottom, and the permafrost-- I mean I have pictures of methane boiling out of permafrost ponds. The Russians have studied this a little more thoroughly and they call it the methane bomb. They say that once the sea ice is gone, that will be a proxy for the explosion of the methane bomb. And they talk about 50 -- I have no idea what a gigaton is -- but a whole lot of those guys just going off. The volume of methane potential up there is, it's considerable. 

Carrier: Do you think we can do anything to change that trend? 

Peacock: That's a tough one since it's already in place and ongoing. And even when we stopped all greenhouse emissions today, climate scientists tell me that -- let me just finish the methane thing.

Methane in short, it's a greenhouse gas that in the very short run is a hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide. So that's going to be several degrees of Fahrenheit and at least one degree of centigrade rise. And human beings never lived on this planet at temperatures above 3.3 degrees centigrade above baseline -- baseline being defined as the beginning of the industrial revolution, I don't know, it's 1780 or what -- but that's the definition. It’s just scary because what's going to affect our climate and our weather down here and our precipitation and energy needs is really coming from the Arctic above all. Changes two and a half times more severe, more abrupt than it is down here. It was 84 up in the Arctic a few days ago, 84 degrees Fahrenheit. 

I didn't come here to tell a bummer story, but that one  gets your attention. We're gonna fight the same fight anyway, right to the end, no matter what, because what else would want to do? In the severest case -- again, for me it doesn't matter if I'm fighting for caribou or grizzly bears or my family, it's the same damn battle and I'll be proud to fight it to the end. 

Carrier: Alright, well thank you very much. (applause in background)

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OUTRO

Roberts: That was Doug Peacock and Scott Carrier Mountain Film, May 25th, 2019. The Mountain Film world tour is happening now. Find out if it's coming to you and buy tickets for next year's event in Telluride at mountainfilm.org.

Thanks to Ben Moon for letting us share an audio clip from Grizzly Country, which you can watch online. Just Google it.  Scott Carrier's podcast is Home with the Brave. You should listen to it. 

This episode was brought to you by Honey Stinger, making delicious fuel for athletes using honey and organic ingredients. Learn about their athlete community, The Hive, at honeystinger.com/sponsorship and be sure to check out their podcast, The Hive Life.

The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Integrated Media. We'll be back in two weeks.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.