Hallucinating from a malaria attack, 27-year-old Doug Peacock crawled into his tent. His fever spiked at 105.6 degrees as he camped in Yellowstone National Park’s lodgepole pine forest.
“So I was out of my mind, and there were grizzly bears around,” he recalled, harking back to 1968 as he sat at his dining room table recently. That was the year Peacock returned from Vietnam where he served as a Green Beret medic.
People are also reading…
“I saw the tracks, I knew they were around, but I wasn’t sure if they were real or not,” he said.
As the fever subsided, Peacock struck out to explore the area, soaking in hot springs until he was lobster red and fever free. Not far from where he camped, he discovered grizzlies gathering to feed at a Park Service dump. For days Peacock watched from a distance, once climbing a skinny tree to avoid an angry sow’s charge.
“You know, the grizzly bears get your attention, and that’s exactly what I needed back in 1968 when I first crawled out of the jungle,” he said. “It was magic.”
Peacock said he sought out such remote places to escape the demons of war that were haunting him, long before a mental health condition now known as post-traumatic stress disorder had a name.
“I thought the Viet Cong were chasing me half the time,” he said.
Enamored with the big bruins, in 1975 Peacock began spending up to four months a year for the next 15 years filming grizzlies in and around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. During his time working as a fire lookout in Glacier, he began writing the memoir “Grizzly Years, In Search of American Wilderness,” which was published in 1990. It was the first of five books.
Peacock’s work has earned him a reputation as a “renegade naturalist” and “environmental individualist.”
“I’ve been fighting for the plight of the grizzly bear for 50 years,” he said.
Now 80 years old, Peacock has built his home on the lee side of a hill in Montana’s Paradise Valley, about 30 miles north of Yellowstone. Next door is a subdivision created by members of a doomsday religious group, their fallout shelters dotting some yards. Looking out his dining room window in the winter, Peacock occasionally sees elk gather. Once a group milled nervously as a black wolf approached from the foothills.
His home’s large windows also provide a view of the Gallatin and Absaroka mountains that stretch south to Yellowstone, a place where in his youth he would regularly carry 100 pounds of gear on snowshoes into the backcountry, subsisting on granola, protein powder and jerky so he could film grizzly bears.
On one trip in the 1980s actor Arnold Schwarzenegger accompanied him into Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley for an edition of “American Sportsman.”
Peacock’s interest in Yellowstone’s grizzly bears ignited just before the Park Service decided in 1970 to close its five open-pit dumps. At the time, bear biologist twin brothers John and Frank Craighead estimated the grizzly population in the park at 174 animals.
With the sudden loss of a steady food source, many “incorrigible bears” ran afoul of park managers and were shot or trapped and euthanized. In 1970 the park staff “carried out 70 control actions involving 50 different grizzly bears,” according to an article in the 2008 edition of the magazine Yellowstone Science. “Twenty bears were removed permanently, including 12 sent to zoos.”
The removals were one more sign for Peacock of man’s intolerance for grizzlies, a problem that dated back as far as the 1800s when bears – along with other species – were effectively eliminated in a “steady genocide.” As a result, grizzly populations dwindle by 100,000, he wrote in “Grizzly Years,” “one example of a native American species that did not bend to our purposes.”
After the garbage dumps closed, and following the listing of grizzlies as an endangered species in 1975, the Yellowstone population steadily grew to what is now estimated to be more than 690 animals.
Despite the gains, Peacock remains disheartened by federal management of the species, decrying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempts to delist the animals in 2007 and 2017. With state control seemingly on the horizon, wildlife agencies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho made plans to resume grizzly bear hunting seasons.
A 2018 court decision by a federal judge stalled the delisting and thereby the hunts, but Peacock is unsatisfied.
“My work these days is trying to make federal agencies … to go over their heads, which is hard because it’s only a couple of people, or drag them into court and sue them,” he said.
The guidelines the agencies are using date back to 1986, ignore climate change and resist any outside influence, Peacock argued. So in 2016, he started the nonprofit group Save the Yellowstone Grizzly to give the animals a voice.
He’s also written a new book, "Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior's Long Trail Home, due out Jan. 25, advocating for the big bruins.
Released last year on YouTube is a 28-minute movie he co-wrote and helped produce, which includes some of his original footage, titled “The Beast of Our Time: Climate Change and Grizzly Bears.” His friend, actor Jeff Bridges, narrates the film, which also features Livingston grizzly biologist David Mattson and advocate Louisa Willcox, former Forest Service entomologist Jesse Logan and Tom Miner Basin rancher Hannibal Anderson and his daughter Malou Anderson-Ramirez. Author Rick Bass helped write the script.
“We are not grieving the loss of species. We are not grieving the fires that are burning,” writer Terry Tempest Williams said in the film. “We just go on as if everything is fine.”
Bridges’ closing words are, “We know what we have to do. The grizzlies’ fate and ours are one.”
The film emphasizes Peacock’s growing concerns over the effects of climate change. A 2021 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report highlighted the dangers, calling attention to rising global sea levels and increases in methane concentrations, a greenhouse gas.
“Starting this summer, everyone can see there’s not a species you know of that’s not going to be on the endangered species list, including two-legged ones,” Peacock said, pointing to drought, huge wildland fires, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and dangerously high temperatures in parts of the ocean. “(Climate change) is coming for all of us.”
Grizzly bears have already been forced to adapt their diets following the decline of key food sources like whitebark pine nuts, cutthroat trout and elk, he noted, but even they have their limits.
In addition to his nonprofit work, films and books, Peacock is working with ecologist Lance Craighead (son of Frank Craighead) to find ways for grizzly bears to safely wander from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a key to connecting the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bears for genetic diversity.
East of Livingston, along Interstate 90, there are underpasses grizzlies could use to travel toward the Crazy Mountains, he said. Other wildlife – including mountain lions, black bears and moose – would also benefit from safe routes between habitats.
These explorer grizzlies face challenges beyond highways, including landowner acceptance of their presence and avoiding the temptation of livestock predation.
Other explorer bears have not made it far before running into conflicts with humans and being killed.
“A dialogue needs to be started about the value of a sacred cow,” Peacock said.
That conversation needs to include a discussion about tolerance for grizzlies on the landscape as they wander, he added.
As a self-described “geezer” with lung damage from the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange, Peacock sees his work as one way to provide his descendants with a better world.
“My god, look at this. What a gift of Earth we’ve been given,” he said. “We have got to look around and appreciate it and love it.”
He sees the current era as a tipping point for the human race and other species, but doesn’t have much confidence in the current crop of politicians or agency officials to address difficult issues like climate change. Time is precious, he noted, as species dependent on vanishing ice and snow, like the polar bear and wolverine, are under imminent threat.
“I’m too god damned old for this stuff, but I’m still stuck.”