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Grizzlies ‘Saved His Life’ and Now He Fights To Save Theirs

Naturalist and author Doug Peacock talks about the government’s decision to delist grizzlies and why now—more than ever—we need to “fight like hell” to save them.

Doug Peacock stands on the edge of the Yellowstone River in Emigrant, Montana.

Doug Peacock stands on the edge of the Yellowstone River in Emigrant, Montana.

Tom Robertson

Recently, Earthjustice attorneys presented oral arguments in federal court in Missoula, Mont., in our lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's illegal decision to strip Yellowstone's grizzly bears of endangered species protections. Though the judge has extended a temporary restraining order stopping Wyoming and Idaho’s planned grizzly hunt that was set to start Sept. 1., the fight continues to protect this imperiled species.

Naturalist and author Doug Peacock has joined our lawsuit to defend the grizzlies and permanently stop the hunt. After serving two tours as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam, he went into the American wilderness to confront his demons. There, he closely observed grizzlies across the west—an experience he says “saved his life.” Below, he talks about the government’s recent decision to delist grizzlies and why now—more than ever—we need to “fight like hell” to save them.

After serving in Vietnam, Peacock worked for the National Park Service from 1973 to 1982, which led him to the next chapter of his life—filming grizzly bears in the wild.
After serving in Vietnam, Peacock worked for the National Park Service from 1973 to 1982, which led him to the next chapter of his life—filming grizzly bears in the wild.
Photo Courtesy of Doug Peacock

JESSICA: Why did you start the “Save the Grizzly” campaign?

DOUG: It was something that needed doing and no one was taking it on. Back when the government was first considering delisting, I wrote a letter to President Obama that was signed by some of the world’s leading conservationists. I [also] formed the “Save the Yellowstone Grizzly” campaign so people could see the petition and take action.

I do not believe that, given the existing mortality rate of the Yellowstone grizzly population segment, grizzlies can endure a single season of trophy hunting. You won’t just have the people with hunting tags taking a bear. Everybody on earth will be shooting at grizzlies. And once they start killing grizzlies, it’s just going to continue.

JESSICA: Now that they’re delisted, what’s next?

DOUG: I’m keeping up the heat. Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit, and the attorneys want testimony to make clear what is at stake in the case. I’ve prepared a statement that says my own life would be irreparably damaged if grizzly delisting stands.

Right now you’ve got an island population of six or seven hundred grizzlies. The number of known grizzly bear deaths is around 60 per year, with additional unknown deaths. If they squeeze even a single hunting license in, it could turn things around so fast.

For more than 15 years, Peacock lived in the remote backcountry of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks where he spent his time observing and filming grizzlies in their natural habitats.
For more than 15 years, Peacock lived in the remote backcountry of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks where he spent his time observing and filming grizzlies in their natural habitats.
Photo Courtesy of Doug Peacock

JESSICA: Why come to Earthjustice?

DOUG: I had to do the lawsuit, with or without anybody. I’m old and I’ve been doing this for about 50 years, and just in case no one else was going to defend the grizzly, I will do it. But for me, to pick a legal group, there’s no contest. I trust Earthjustice.

JESSICA: Does climate change make the grizzlies’ situation worse?

DOUG: It’s causing havoc with the bears. With climate change, everything’s going to become endangered, not just grizzly bears in Yellowstone. It’s going to kick us all in the belly so hard. I know it’s going to come fast, but the upside is that we’re going to see that everything is linked and we’re all in this together. Nobody gets a free pass.

It’s all the more reason to fight like hell right now because you know what’s at stake.

Peacock was one of the first photographers to create such spectacular footage of grizzly bears in the wild.
Peacock was one of the first photographers to create such spectacular footage of grizzly bears in the wild.
Photo Courtesy of Doug Peacock

JESSICA: What do you appreciate most about grizzlies?

DOUG: It’s the one animal that shows us our own arrogance and our own absolute lack of humility in living in this world. You see a grizzly and you’re aware of your place on the cosmic food chain. You’re not on the top, you’re in the middle.

When you’re in grizzly country, you don’t walk down the trails thinking about your portfolio or your girlfriend or boyfriend. You’ve got something out there that’s much more powerful, and it’s kind of an instant humility. I find that a tremendously healthy place to be.

Peacock recalls the nine years he worked low-level backcountry jobs for the National Park Service as a golden time of bears and berries, including regular prolonged visits from his daughter Laurel and son Colin.
Peacock recalls the nine years he worked low-level backcountry jobs for the National Park Service as a golden time of bears and berries, including regular prolonged visits from his daughter Laurel and son Colin.
Photo Courtesy of Doug Peacock

JESSICA: When was your last encounter?

DOUG: I saw a couple of grizzlies in June when my daughter and I were in Yellowstone. We climbed to the top of a butte and the wind was roaring, so we huddled behind a big boulder, all scrunched down out of the wind. I looked at my daughter’s face, and I saw something change. Behind her was a mother grizzly and her yearling cub. I said to Laurel, “Don’t move.” The momma bear reared and kind of smelled the air and looked around. It took us a couple minutes to realize she was making up her mind about us and didn't perceive us as a threat. The mother proceeded to walk past us to the edge of a cliff with her yearling, and she laid back and nursed her cub. It was just a magical moment.

From the pagoda he called home at the top of Huckeberry Mountain, Peacock wrote Grizzly Years on his dad's old typewriter with his daughter Laurel on his lap.
From the pagoda he called home at the top of Huckeberry Mountain, Peacock wrote Grizzly Years on his dad's old typewriter with his daughter Laurel on his lap.
Photo Courtesy of Doug Peacock

JESSICA: It sounds like she was acclimated to humans. Now that grizzlies are delisted, does their trust in humans make them more vulnerable?

DOUG: Yes, absolutely. Though that mother grizzly was not necessarily a habituated bear, that trusting situation was set up by the human behavior. This female grizzly and her yearling were only eight miles from the park boundary where hunting would take place in the national forest. If hunting is allowed, those bears would be gone in a day.

If people are allowed to shoot grizzlies, all these bears that have tolerated people are going to be betrayed by humanity in such a deadly way. It’s ugly.

Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park
Grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park
Courtesy of Tom Murphy
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