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

After naturalist and author Doug Peacock served 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.”

Over the past five decades, Peacock has strived to pay back grizzlies by advocating for protections and documenting their struggles to survive. Last year, he launched the “Save the Yellowstone Grizzly” campaign after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to strip Endangered Species Act protections from grizzlies in the Yellowstone region—a decision it made official in June. Together with a coalition of scientists, authors and celebrities, including Jane Goodall and Michael Keaton, the group is petitioning the agency to reinstate federal protections for the bears. In August, Earthjustice backed up that petition by filing a lawsuit challenging the agency’s delisting decision.

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. From that, we got a six-month delay. When the government decided to consider delisting grizzlies, I formed the “Save the Yellowstone Grizzly” campaign. It was mainly just a website 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 grizzlies are delisted, what do you plan to do next?

DOUG: I’m keeping up the heat. Now that Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit, 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. I’m confident that the delisting can be overturned in a federal court, but it might take a couple of years.

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.

JESSICA: What made you want to work with 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: How does climate change factor into the grizzly delisting issue?

DOUG: It’s causing havoc with the bears. With climate change, everything’s going to become endangered, not just an isolated island of 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. I’m just going to put all my eggs in the Yellowstone grizzly basket for a while and see what we can get out of it.

One of the few hundred remaining grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park.

One of the few hundred remaining grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park.

Ronan Donovan / National Geographic

JESSICA: What are you doing to spread the word to young people?

DOUG: I just show up and teach classes. Or sometimes a whole school will send their students out to spend a week with me in Yellowstone. A lot of young people really impress me. I’m seeing a lot of hope in that they know what’s up. And that’s what makes me optimistic. So I don’t despair the younger generation at all. 

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.

JESSICA: When was your last encounter with grizzlies?

DOUG: I saw a couple of grizzlies last month 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 kind of 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.

JESSICA: It sounds like she was acclimated to humans, which is also the case with other grizzlies in Yellowstone. Now that grizzlies are no longer protected, does their trust in humans make them even 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.

In order to use the habitat that’s visible from the roads, the Yellowstone park bears have had to tolerate people and their cameras. 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