The Grizzly Man’s Last Stand

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Photograph by Tom Robertson

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.”

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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.

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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.”

A few weeks after our hunt, on a chilly fall dusk, I’m over at the home of Peacock and his wife, Andrea, a former journalist who co-owns Elk River Books in Livingston, Montana, about 25 miles north. It’s on a windy prairie, west of the old mining town of Emigrant, looking north toward the Crazys, a spacious adobe, filled with light. Antelope, mule deer, and sometimes elk peer in through the large windows in winter, their breath frosting the glass.

We’ve splurged tonight, opened a Bandol, 2013 Domaine Tempier. Peacock is a gourmand and self-taught sommelier (or, as he prefers to call himself, a “smelly-a”). We’re cooking antelope and venison along with some wild morels. The wind’s swirling too much for grilling, so it’s all roasting in a hot oven. As it cooks, Peacock leads me to his office and shows me his map drawer. He slides on a pair of reading glasses, looking less like a professor than a wild animal, or wild person, who simply found a pair of glasses and is trying them on. Over the years Peacock has collected hundreds of maps, and he handles the parchments like holy texts — all the routes and wild places in the Rockies; the mountain ranges of Mexico; the Arctic tundra. Places where bears are, or where bears were. One of them is a tattered 1960s road map he studied as a young soldier in Vietnam, late at night in his bunker, poring over the peaks and valleys and big blank spots, imagining a country he’d not yet visited. “These maps are what got me through Vietnam,” he says. “I’d look at them and imagine all the wild country I was going to see — lakes I would fish, peaks I would bag — if I ever got out.” he says.

Peacock was born in northern Michigan, the son of two avid naturalists — his mother a teacher and first-class birder, his father a civil engineer and Boy Scout leader — and spent his boyhood hunting and fishing in Hemingway’s woods. He always had an antiauthoritarian streak. Attending the University of Michigan as a philosophy and geology student in the early 1960s, he brought Martin Luther King Jr. to campus over the protests of the engineering school dean. “He took me into his office and started showing me all this FBI shit about King’s sexual activity,” Peacock says. “I stood up to him. But I knew right from the start that King had powerful enemies.”

He left college in 1964 and made his way to Berkeley, California. When his draft notice arrived a few months later, he decided to enlist in the Army. He was no fan of the war in Vietnam, but says he “wanted to bear witness. I had to see it for myself.” He became a Green Beret and served two consecutive tours as a combat medic stationed in Vietnam’s rugged highlands among the indigenous Montagnard people, who served as his command’s mountain troops. “I always identified with them,” he says. “They were treated so badly by their own country, like our blacks or Indians. And they knew the land. I was immediately comfortable with them.” Peacock was shot at, splattered with shrapnel, and suffered multiple concussions. He spent much of his time sewing together blown-up children.

In early 1968, Peacock was in the Navy hospital in Danang with a minor foot wound when the Vietcong launched their massive Tet Offensive. Nearly half of his team was wiped out on the Laotian border. The infirmary where he was housed came under siege, with North Vietnamese soldiers at the perimeter. As the oldest ranking noncommissioned officer, he assumed command of 30 young men, largely bed-bound, wounded Marines, with only one weapon, his Colt .45 single-action semiautomatic. Peacock disassembled beds and tables and handed out the legs to use as weapons to those able to stand. “I devised a plan where I would plink the Vietcong when they stormed the door,” he says. “We’d rush them, take their weapons and start shooting back.” He shakes his head. “Of course, we’d probably fail,” he says, “but every one of those kids was willing to die.” Fortunately, U.S. air support sent the Vietcong scattering and he never had to put the plan into place.

A few days later, Peacock was back in the highlands, in a firefight in which 180 men, women, and children were killed or wounded, and he was the only medic. He couldn’t figure out which arms and legs were supposed to go back on which bodies, especially the smaller ones. He found himself holding a dead baby up to the sky in a monsoon and cursing God. “I was given my ‘death eyes’ that day,” he says. “I was ordered out of the field; arrangements were made for me to leave.”

He was flown out by helicopter. Soaring down the coast, he passed over another battle, saw soldiers running. Someone fired up at his helicopter. He assumed it was enemy fire but later found out he’d flown right over the My Lai Massacre and it was likely his own deranged troops firing at him. “March 16,” he says. “My Day of the Dead.”

Peacock returned to his parents’ home in Michigan, aimless and lost. After a few weeks he headed out west. He was camping in Colorado when he heard that Martin Luther King had been gunned down. The war, it appeared, had followed him home. “It didn’t surprise me at all,” he says. “It was what I expected of the world.”

He made his way up to Wyoming’s Wind River Range — which was on one of the maps he’d often pondered — and north from there, up into Yellowstone country. He had it in mind to find a hot spring to soak in, to lick his wounds in solitude. And so he crawled into the lair of bears. The first that he saw, a sow with two cubs, sauntered up to him while he was relaxing in a hot spring in the backcountry. Terrified, Peacock rose so quickly from the steaming water that he blacked out, fell down, hit his head, and finally hauled himself up a small pine tree by the water’s edge. And all the while the sow just ignored him. “I clung to the top of the tiny Christmas-like tree, naked, blue, and bleeding, feeling like some variety of silly sparrow,” he says.

But there was something about the bears that intrigued him. So he began tracking them, following at a cautious, respectful distance. “I began to have relationships with certain bears,” he says. Bitter Creek Grizz, Black Grizz. The animals came to tolerate him and never attacked. They were powerful and ferocious, yet gentle and loving. And Peacock began to feel better.

When the weather got really cold and the bears went into hibernation, Peacock made his way down to southern Arizona, home to one of his heroes, Edward Abbey. He had read Abbey’s memoir Desert Solitaire, and admired his pro-wilderness, antiauthority philosophy. In retrospect, Peacock realizes, he was “looking for another war, a noble war, one worth fighting.” After being introduced by a mutual friend, Peacock showed up at Abbey’s ranger hut at Organ Pipe National Monument with a six-pack of beer and a bottle of whiskey. (“Good manners,” he says. “That was how you did things back then.”) The two men hit it off immediately and began going for long rambles deep into the desert Southwest. It was during these excursions, Peacock says, that he found his true calling: “The preservation of wilderness.”

Peacock began splitting his time — late fall and winter in the desert, then back to grizzly country for spring and summer. He’d stay there for weeks at a time, toting an ancient Bolex 16mm-film camera and tripod. He filmed the bears playing, fighting, mating, caring for their cubs. Back then, conventional wisdom held that grizzlies were ferocious loners, nature’s malcontents. Peacock’s footage showed them as the Blackfeet, Crow, and other tribes had seen them — as noble creatures. “Teacher,” the native people called them. “Grizzlies are wilderness incarnate,” he says. “If we are to succeed in saving grizzlies, we will not do it by changing the bears to meet our needs. For the first time in our short history, we will have to be the ones to bend.”

In Montana, Peacock met some of the glamorous set that was arriving there in the late 1970s — agents, movie stars, famous authors — and scored gigs house-sitting for the likes of Jeff Bridges and Jim Harrison. He took a job as a fire lookout in Glacier National Park. While he was there, there was a mysterious firebombing of an oil company’s helicopter the day after it buzzed his lookout. “Me?” he said, when friends asked him about it. “I was in the lookout.”

Eventually, Peacock got married, had two children, bought a little home in the desert, and settled down. He began writing, and in 1996, he published Grizzly Years, which National Geographic named one of the 100 best adventure books of all time. He co-founded Round River Conservation Studies, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving wilderness worldwide. The activism reflects something he learned from Abbey, who once wrote, “Sentiment without action is the ruination of the soul.” Peacock puts it this way: “One action is worth a thousand books.”


While in Arizona, Peacock and Abbey made more than a dozen major trips into the Cabeza Prieta badlands. When they encountered a coal exploration site out in the high desert, they poured a bunch of discarded drill bits down the well bore. “Should take them a while to drill through all that junk,” Peacock recounted his friend saying in another memoir, Walking It Off.

Such antics landed Peacock, Abbey, and their crew on the FBI watch list. They also inspired Abbey to create the character of George Washington Hayduke, leader of the ragtag crew of eco-terrorists in The Monkey Wrench Gang. Hayduke — a drunk, dim-witted rage machine and victim of  Vietnam — leads a Jewish hippie chick, an Eastern intellectual, and a ne’er-do-well Mormon on a quixotic, booze-fueled meander through the desert Southwest as they saw down billboards, gut bulldozers, and pull up survey stakes, all in training for their big goal: to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam, which had flooded the once-wild Colorado River to create Lake Powell. (“Lake Foul,” Peacock still calls it.) Published in 1975, the novel wound up selling half a million copies. Even more significant, one of the novel’s themes — “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth” — helped spawn the radical environmental group Earth First!

The success of the book wound up straining Peacock and Abbey’s friendship. “I was Hayduke, and Hayduke was a lout,” Peacock says. “It was complicated. I was seduced by the hype.” As for Abbey, he wrote in his journal: “Doug is like a brother to me. And maybe that’s why, most of the time, I can’t stand him.”

In the late 1980s, Abbey became seriously ill. With death approaching, he was very specific about his desire to be buried in his beloved desert. And he was counting on his old friend to make that happen. Drawing on his experience as a medic, Peacock administered Abbey’s medications — Compazine to counteract the nausea; morphine and Demerol to ease the pain; an IV of 5 percent dextrose to keep him hydrated. “The very last time Ed Abbey smiled was when I told him where he was going to be buried,” Peacock says. “And I smile, too, when I think of this small favor, the final duty, this last simple task friends can do for one another.”

As it happened, Abbey was buried on March 16, 1989: the 21st anniversary of Peacock’s Day of the Dead.

“Ed and I saw an apocalypse coming,” Peacock says. “We weren’t talking about greenhouse gases. We were looking at our own culture and its rapacious drive to domesticate the Earth — a premise that still lives on today.” Hence the fight on behalf of the grizzlies.

We seldom stop to understand just how majestic the animals are, Peacock says. Grizzlies can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and can live to be 20 or even 30 years old. During hibernation, their heart rate slows to 10 to 20 beats per minute. Their cubs — two or three — are born in the midst of hibernation, weighing less than two pounds each. They don’t start breeding until they are five, making them the second-slowest reproducing land-mammal in North America. What’s more, they breed only every third year, when they are finished raising their cubs. “The females with young have never been at greater risk than right now,” Peacock says. “This delisting is a fucking travesty.”

There are so many factors that endanger the Yellowstone grizzly: the local near-extinction of cutthroat trout; the subdividing of wilderness areas due to mining, logging, and other development; the paucity of safe routes that remain for the bears to pass from one ecosystem into the next. But the most immediate danger to the Yellowstone grizzly, other than the fact that people may soon be allowed to start shooting them, is the sudden extinction, due to global warming, of the whitebark pine tree. “The trees grow up in the wind-whipped stony soil of the tops of mountains, where the growing season passes each year in the blink of an eye,” says Jesse Logan, for decades the head of the beetle research unit for the U.S. Forest Service at the Ricky Mountain Laboratory in Utah. “They live to be a thousand years old.” The whitebarks help support all other life at that elevation — most importantly for the bears and the red squirrels who gather the trees’ cones, which contain the rich seeds, and cache them in piles that look like giant mounds of chocolate chips. Mother grizzlies find the piles and feast. After gaining hundreds of pounds, they’ll dig a hole on a northeast slope, up in the snow, and hibernate for five months, the cubs nursing as their mother sleeps. When the snow thins, they all tumble out like astronauts, or time travelers, into a green new land.

In the 1990s, David Mattson, a scientist with the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and now a senior lecturer at Yale, demonstrated the relationship between the death of bears and the whitebark. In years of poor pine-seed production, Mattson found, human-caused bear mortality skyrockets, because the bears have to come down out of the mountains to find something else to eat.

The proposed delisting of the animals, he says, is “a betrayal of the public trust.”

The USFWS argues that the bears can always be relisted if their numbers plunge. But that can take years, and grizzly advocates say that will happen only as a result of a legal challenge. What’s more, politicians in the state of Montana have passed a resolution asking Congress to delist bears in northern Montana’s Yaak Valley — where, astonishingly, only around 20 bears live.

Later in the fall, peacock and I are hiking in Yellowstone when we find ourselves in the midst of a ghost forest of dead whitebark pine. Spying an abandoned bear bed, Peacock takes off his pack and curls up into it. We sit together staring at the view: big snowy mountains; waves of gray spars; a winding river far below; wisps of steam from vents in the earth. A bald eagle floats down the valley, unaware of irony or symbolism — or perhaps even time itself.

His breathing labored, Peacock talks about Vietnam, about racism — against indigenous peoples, African-Americans. The conversation turns to Trump. “These fat old white guys — none of them ever fight,” he says. “They sold us down the river in Vietnam. You learn to smell it. They’re lying again, man.”

It occurs to me that the grizzlies originally came over as the first North Americans did: from Asia, across the Bering land bridge and down the Rocky Mountain Front, into what would a long time later become Montana. Doug’s pale people, and mine, came over a few hundred years ago on a boat, crossing the Atlantic.

A light snow begins to fall. A herd of elk appears, then heads upslope, into the aspen. Here in Yellowstone, the elk are safe. Inside the park, hunting is forbidden, nothing can be killed — it’s like a little fishbowl.

After a while we get up and start heading back. Soon the ghosts of dead whitebarks have us surrounded, and Peacock’s breath steams like blood from a womb. I turn and look back. There is a bare spot of earth where we had been sitting, and as we walk away, it is filling in, fading to white.

Rick Bass lives in Montana. His most recent book is the short-story collection For a Little While.

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