Doug Peacock is considered by many veterans as the godfather of the modern movement to connect those who have been to war with the physical land they fought for when they come home. Outside, Doug argues, veterans can search for, "...a peril [experience] the equivalent of war but aimed in the direction of life." Having found his healing and great comfort literally walking with grizzly bears in the 40 years since his return from Vietnam, Doug also advocates for the notion of 'payback.' When you receive a gift, you have to find a way to pay it back.
Doug is giving his payback to the bears for fighting against the delisting from the endangered species act of the Grizzly Bear. Doug covers, and debunks, the byzantine logic being used by the Federal Government to support delisting in an outstanding article here.
Recently, I had the chance to chat with Doug about why the grizzly was important to America and to better understand his position. Some of our conversation is recorded below:
You have a close personal relationship built up over many years with the Grizzly. Not every American could have this experience and it seems like it would be a bad thing of many more did. Would you recommend your methods of study to other people? How can others who are not you, develop a close relationship and appreciation for the Grizzly?
My "method" with grizzlies -- which began merely by watching bears until it became an ecology of thinking evolved over a decade in an older, simpler wilderness...a hundred Doug Peacocks or Timothy Treadwells in the woods would be a bad thing. I don't necessarily recommend it to anyone. The main things to carry into grizzly country are an open mind and enough skill and knowledge of wild bears not to get into trouble. The onus is upon us because, while we can go any anywhere, griz can't and our human intrusions into grizzly habitat are optional and voluntary. We indeed make the wilderness less wild with our visits and some restraint is appropriate. These days, I choose to trek into griz country selectively, at special times of passage or when the spirit needs lifting. Such trips certainly get you out of yourself.
If you want to develop a relationship with wild creatures, you need to do so with some deliberation. Prepare your mind before you trek into griz country, open yourself up for a potential spirit-shaking experience; consider fasting for a day or so, try spending a few quiet hours alone or meditate if it fits you. And, when you get out there on that high ridge, expect to spend some time. Such refined appreciation of other creatures doesn't often happen in a day or as a lightning strike -- though it might.
In the article you discuss the Grizzly Bear, Wolf, and Bison as iconic animals. What makes them iconic, and why do they matter to America?
They are the wild heart of North America and dominated the landscape for 12,000 years. The grizzly was co-dominate with Native Americans on this continent, the wolf the top predator and an indicator of ecological health, while the bison, ranging in vast herds numbering in the millions, occupied the spiritual and physical center of Native people who lived with them, including the Plain's tribes at the time of contact. European firearms and dominion put an end to all that starting a mere 150 years ago; the grizzly reduced in range by 99 percent, the bison killed off until, in 1902, only a couple dozen wild buffalo remained in Yellowstone and wolves poisoned back to near extinction in the lower 48. The spiritual content of iconic animals lingers in American Tribal culture and, as the cult of the bear figured large in early Eurasian religious practices, could be rekindled in our own kind, if we only allow them -- the potency of sacred paws, sacred hooves.
Delisting or not, it seems like the Grizzly Bear is in a lot of trouble in the States. If delisting were not a concern what ideas do you have that would support growth of the grizzly population?
The key to keeping the grizzly south of Canada is human tolerance. The brown bear can coexist with low numbers of humans and do; a significant amount of ranch country in the Greater Yellowstone is bear-friendly. You might lose a calf from time to time but grizzlies are no significant threat to cattle operations. Sheep are different; you can't graze sheep in griz country and there are plenty of other sheep allotments available that have no bears. So we need to allow the grizzly to colonize public lands at the fringes of Yellowstone' grizzly range and secondly, facilitate linkages and corridors to other grizzly populations in northern Montana. That means getting bears over or under freeways but that is a challenge human engineers and biologist are good at.
What are the proposed benefits of delisting?
The federal Interagency grizzly committee's opinion is that delisting is essential for the future of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), that without delisting (removal of ESA protections) public support for the ESA will vanish. Where the feds get this demographic data is a big mystery; I don't know nor does anyone else I've asked.
I don't think a lot of Americans know there is such a threat to the lives of grizzly bears. There has been a lot of coverage recently about the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone Habitat and other areas throughout the United States. What similarities and differences are there in the fight for the lives of wolves and the fight for the lives of Grizzlies?
Wolves and grizzlies challenge our idea of being the boss, of being in charge of the planet. We're not, and some animals -- like bison, wolves and griz -- don't bend easily to the dictates of wildlife management. There is a fierce and irrational hatred of these creatures by people who no longer have a tie with wild animals or nature in general. I think modern people fear the unknown above all else. Human perception of top carnivores is often based on ignorance that makes the irrational hatred possible. To fight for the lives of wolves and grizzlies requires that we let go of the Western tradition of control. We should stop our domestication of the planet at the fence line.
The other bear that is in the news a lot and linked to climate change is the Polar Bear. How are Polar Bears doing compared to Grizzlies in terms of climate change?
Both species will suffer the challenges of global warming; for polar bear, a specialized predator, the challenges will probably prove fatal. On the north slope of the Yukon, for example, polar bears are marching inland, browsing, digging, chasing caribou and occasionally eating snow geese or their eggs. But hunting their principal food, seals, requires sea ice. The Department of Navy, a neutral observer, says summer sea ice will disappear in the Beaufort Sea by 2016. Polar bears and grizzlies are interacting, interbreeding and producing reproductive offspring. In the face of irreversible climate change, it's possible the polar bear will survive only by folding its genes back into the brown bear, a hybridization that geneticists tell us has happened before. The grizzly, in short, is a more adaptable omnivore.
If you could ensure a positive outcome for Grizzly Bears in the Yellowstone region in the next 20 years, what would that look like?
To compensate for the loss of critical foods, or decline in carrying capacity, due to warming temperatures, any given grizzly population in Yellowstone will need to increase its range and be allowed to naturally recolonize its historic range, especially down in the Wind River and Wyoming Ranges. And, again, this will require human tolerance and education. Island ecosystems of grizzly bears are doomed by isolation, so linkages are absolutely essential for long-term survival.
How complicit are the states in pushing for delisting of the Grizzly Bear? What benefits would they get from managing the population?
The states of Montana, Idaho and especially Wyoming exert huge pressures on the FWS to delist Yellowstone's grizzlies. Once delisted, the states will immediately sell trophy grizzly hunting permits for big bucks. But I don't think this is about money for the states; it's about control and some twisted notion of Dominion. Big oil and coal will get the money when and if the states rule the land. And, yes, those attitudes are the same as those, like Utah, want the federal land handed over to state management.
Are there any similarities in the push for delisting and the push in some states, like Utah, for handing over federal lands to state control?
These are public lands that belong to you and your children, to anyone in New York or San Francisco or anywhere else in America as much as they belong to residents of Cody, Wyoming or Livingston, Montana. We white settlers in the West often conveniently forget that we were not the first to own the land; we merely got it from others who stole it from people who never claimed to own it in the beginning.
We should also remember the funding behind public land grabs by the western states comes largely from the Koch brothers and the ideology of greed and possession.
There is another way of seeing the vast public lands of our mountains and forests: that maybe they belong to no one, or to themselves. We don't need to see our public lands as a giant free super-market, a cheap place to graze our cows or extract minerals, drill for oil. Their value has a spiritual content emanating from the plants and animals and lingering signs of the ancients.
Many people, when reading this article or hearing your story may think that what you did when you came home from Vietnam, 'seeking the equivalent of war but aimed in the direction of life' in the way you did was almost suicidal. A lot of people may think your 100s of encounters with Grizzly Bears would be traumatic. Are they?
I strongly disagree: my encounters with grizzlies were the opposite of suicide and never traumatic. The great bear is indeed beauty married to danger. But I knew what I was doing and didn't seek close encounters of the macho kind. What I brought away from meeting the bear on the trail was a healing experience I sorely needed after the war. It's true that, in those early years, I probably had little fear of death and needed danger like a drug. But the difference of the stench of war and killing versus the gift of life in a grizzlies charge is dramatic and perceptible: You can smell the difference.
How can people get involved to stop the delisting, with organizational support? Without it?
I think the Sierra Club should lead the charge and challenge federal delisting in a court of law; the Sierra Club is large, democratic and unencumbered by big oil influence. It would be good for everyone, including the bears. Write the Club's leaders or donate to a grizzly delisting defense fund for Earthjustice, who will likely provide the legal team.
Individuals could seek to petition the President to withdraw the delisting order. It's a lot of work: I did one with neighbors Michael Keaton and Carl Hiaasen back in 2009. I'd try another with some help. If interested, check: dougpeacock.net
Finally, why has effort to strip the Yellowstone grizzly of federal protections not been opposed by mainstream environmental groups? Where are NRDC and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition on this and why are they, and others, running from this issue?