by Rick Bass, Men’s Journal, May 12, 2017
We’ve been walking slowly through the dark for a long time, the old soldier and I, beneath a thumbnail silver moon, the coyotes chattering like roosters. He makes his way using a wooden flagpole for a cane, a rifle and a tripod strapped to his back. Here, some 30 miles north of Yellowstone, at the edge of Montana’s Crazy Mountains, on this cold morning in November, the mind feels clean and clear, focused on this one moment. We’re hoping to kill an elk at daylight.
Doug Peacock has barely hunted, or even fired a gun, since his days in Vietnam. He experienced enough killing there, he says, to last several lifetimes. He was 27 when he came home, racked with PTSD, back before there was a name for it — his Army medical papers described his condition as: “Occupational and social impairment . . . due to such symptoms as: depressed mood, anxiety, suspiciousness, panic attacks, sleep impairment . . .”
Peacock thought he was alone back then; he didn’t know that every soldier experienced some version of this. Once home, he wandered the West — Utah, Arizona, Wyoming — in solitude for weeks at a time. Eventually, he found his way into Yellowstone country, just a day’s walk from the sagebrush prairie we’re traversing this morning. In the small number of grizzly bears that were holding on there, Peacock found something worth living for. He began to follow those bears — tracking them year after year, getting to know them, filming them. Over the years, he came to understand them in ways few others, if any, had before. Now no one knows wild grizzlies better. Other researchers fly over them in airplanes, and many good scientists sit in front of computers doing the important work of spatial modeling and scat analysis. But for nearly his entire adult life, Peacock has been out with the bears — in their country, watching and learning. “It’s the one animal out there that can kill and eat you anytime it chooses to — even though it seldom does,” he says. “It stands as an instant lesson in humility.”
Now some 50 years later — stove-up in his hips, still powerful, if not yet trusting of his new knee replacement — Peacock, 75, walks slowly up this mountain, to a ridge we will creep over and, with any luck, spot the band of elk that’s said to sometimes pass through here. He loves game, and thinks his knee has finally recovered enough for a hunt. His shaved head is speckled with age spots and nicks and cuts. He moves slowly. “This is so good for me,” Peacock says. “I’ve missed this.” He stops and looks around. No roads, no houses, no sign of mankind, just dawn sky and prairie.
The Crazy Mountains glow snow-clad behind us, and there are so many stars it feels as if we are walking through a meadow of them, or a field of fireflies. Soon the red lip of the sun appears, a small fiery corona surrounded by black. Peacock stares at it. On the small ridge ahead, a trophy white-tailed buck, a king, comes walking down out of the darkness as if summoned by the intensity of Peacock’s stare.
Farther on, creeping over a rise, we spy that herd of elk; it’s coming up the hill toward us. We drop to our bellies and wriggle forward toward a notch where we can watch them pass. The wind is in our favor. Peacock readies his rifle, sets up his tripod, squints through the sight, and steadies his breathing.
We wait and in the waiting, his focus is animal-like. But the elk never reappear. When we realize they are not coming, Peacock does not seem particularly disappointed.
“Sometimes they can just tell you’re out there,” he says, “and that you want to kill them.”
Back in the late 1960s, when Peacock first encountered Yellowstone’s bears, there were fewer than 200 of them in the 20 million acres in the park and surrounding country. The population grew so scarce that in 1975, the animals were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Four decades later, that number of grizzlies has grown to around 700, which has led the federal government to declare victory: Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed rescinding the grizzlies’ protected status, a move that, among other things, would allow trophy hunting — “recreational harvest,” the feds call it — in the wilderness surrounding Yellowstone. A final decision on the matter is expected this summer. Meanwhile, state and local officials in Montana are pushing a proposal to open up bear hunting throughout the state. And in April, President Trump signed a bill overturning some Obama-era regulations aimed at protecting grizzlies on national wildlife refuges in Alaska.
Yet hunters are the least of the bears’ problems. One of the grizzly’s most important sources of food is the seed of the whitebark pine. And the tree’s numbers are in free fall: In the last few years, they’ve become functionally extinct, the result of a warming climate that unleashes swarms of tree-killing pine beetles. That’s forced the bears, particularly females with cubs, the most vulnerable, to range farther for food, which has increased their encounters with humans — encounters that often turn deadly. A record 86 grizzlies were reported killed by humans in the Yellowstone ecosystem alone in 2015. Peacock fears the body count will only increase. And he is ready to fight. “From my slightly twisted point of view,” he says, “preserving grizzlies means putting the brakes on a world gone mad.” It also means repaying a personal debt. “Those fucking bears — they saved my fucking life, man. It’s payback time.”
Peacock’s diplomatic skills are less than zero, but his feist quotient exceeds any known scale of measurement. An iconic eco-warrior and spiritual godfather of monkeywrenching, he’s the author of five books, including Grizzly Years, one of those texts — like Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, or Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire — that nearly every environmentalist winds up reading. In fact, Peacock served as the inspiration for one of Abbey’s most memorable characters: George Washington Hayduke, the hard-drinking Vietnam vet eco-saboteur, in the 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. “hayduke lives” T-shirts and bumper stickers remain common sights in mountain towns everywhere. And it’s no stretch to say that the environmental movement can pretty much be demarcated into pre-Doug and post-Doug. “Peacock’s life makes nearly all of the environmental movement look like an upper-class bridge tournament,” the writer Jim Harrison, a longtime friend of Peacock’s, once said. He had a point: How many tree huggers, really, have been shot at? And, more pertinent, have shot back?
Now with Trump in the White House and climate denier Scott Pruitt heading the Environmental Protection Agency, Peacock has kicked his activism into overdrive. With the USFWS expected to make a final decision this summer, he’s working the phone every day, hounding grizzly experts around the world, generating op-eds and news articles, all in a drive to remind us how damned lucky we are to still have grizzlies in the state of Montana. He’s also produced a series of YouTube clips in which celebrities like Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, and Yvon Chouinard urge the government to stop the delisting. He’s drafted a petition — nearly a million people have signed it, including some of the world’s preeminent independent scientists, such as Harvard zoologist E. O. Wilson, biologist George Schaller, and primatologist Jane Goodall.
“Doug is a real hero to me,” says author Carl Hiaasen, a longtime fly-fishing buddy of Peacock’s who appears in one of those videos. “He is the complete American renegade hero — outraged, badass, and deeply, unshakably moral. I’ve never met anyone quite like him. We should all wage life with a purpose so pure.”
Leading a movement does not come naturally to Peacock. On the other hand, he often walked point during patrols in Vietnam. And he feels like he doesn’t have much choice. He’s undergone back surgery and gotten hip and knee replacements. Time, he understands, is running out — and not just for the grizzlies. “This is my swan act,” Peacock says. “It’s like Ed Abbey told us a long time ago: If a murderous stranger came into your home, trying to hack your family to death, burning down your home, what would you do? Climate change is happening so fast. We could see the end of the grizzly within a decade. Human survivors might look back and ask who was responsible for this genocide. For me, it’s time to reexamine everything. I’m wondering if I should go back out and dig up the deer rifles Abbey buried so long ago.”
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For more information: http://www.savetheyellowstonegrizzly.org/