From Doug Peacock's new memoir, Was It Worth It? A Wilderness Warrior’s Long Trail Home
About forty years ago, my friend Edward Abbey gave me a National Rifle Association (NRA) sticker to paste in the back window of my pickup. After all, he’d been an NRA member for years and we both were hunters who supported gun rights and owned firearms.
I never got around to putting on that sticker. In the decades between then and now, Ed’s and my attitude toward guns didn’t change much. My feelings about the NRA, however, have chilled considerably.
Increasingly, the NRA has become the big boy who thinks he can run over anyone and dominate partisan issues—they are widely criticized by environmentalists and Democrats as bullies. And the issues are no longer just those of the Second Amendment, though gun rights remain a primary test of political loyalty. An opinion piece ran in the New York Times that accused the NRA of now focusing on immigration, race, and health care.
The NRA is also actively trying to influence wildlife and wilderness issues, which I care about intensely. The NRA, welded at the hip to Safari Club International (SCI, a privileged group of mostly wealthy hunters dedicated to killing large and rare animals), backed a successful bill to permit extreme methods of killing wolves and grizzlies on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, including gunning down animals from planes and the slaughtering of wolf pups and bear cubs in their dens.
These two lobbying groups oppose protections for the severely endangered California condors, which biologists believe are sickened and killed by lead bullet fragments left in the hunter-felled game animals that are left for scavenging birds to feed on. The NRA and SCI pooh-poohed the notion that ingesting lead fragments harmed condors and claimed instead that their human members “will be impaired if they are no longer able to shoot lead bullets.”
Similarly, the NRA and SCI recently supported a controversial trophy hunt for elephants in Zimbabwe, coinciding with the Trump administration’s decision to overturn an Obama-era ban on elephant trophies. Managed trophy hunting “would not have an adverse effect on the species,” the groups said, “but can further efforts to conserve the species in the wild.” The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to allow the import of elephant trophies was praised by both groups, but drew harsh criticism from wildlife-rights advocates from all sides of the political spectrum.
It was no surprise when the NRA and SCI asked to intervene in a lawsuit over the fate of Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly bear population—an issue close to my heart as well as my home. Their intent is to support the federal decision to remove the bears’ Endangered Species Act protections and allow trophy hunting of Yellowstone’s grizzlies.
Five NRA and SCI members said, in affidavits submitted by their attorneys, that hunting grizzlies would help the region’s economy, allow states to better manage the animals, and improve public safety. These five outfitters and big-game hunters claim their interests would be harmed if they could not have the opportunity to hunt Yellowstone’s grizzlies.
But the core argument is public safety: that hunting bears will make people safer by instilling in grizzlies a fear of humans. These groups claim that Yellowstone’s grizzlies have become too aggressive, and that the fear of people they would develop by being hunted would make the bears shy and more subordinate, thus benefiting public safety. The unexamined assumption is that bears learn from being shot at.
The success of the NRA and SCI’s argument will depend on what the judges make of the scientific plausibility of the “shy” bear theory, and the bear-expertise credibility of the five witnesses who filed declarations.
I strongly disagree with the NRA and SCI’s contention that there is any credible evidence whatsoever that hunting makes grizzlies shy, wary of humans, and therefore less aggressive and safer around humans.
And there is legitimate doubt that grizzly hunting around Yellowstone is, in truth, good for the economy, and that state management is more effective than federal oversight when it comes to endangered species like the grizzly bear.
Finally, I question the grizzly-expertise of the five men who submitted affidavits to the court. The shy-bear argument, which I’ve been hearing in Montana bars for fifty years, is good-oldboy folklore. These men are no doubt competent backcountry professionals, but I do not believe that trophy hunting—especially the guided type, characteristic of Safari Club hunting—makes anyone an “expert” on grizzly bears. My own encounters with wild bears have made me believe that, in fact, the opposite is true: The key to safely dealing with wild grizzlies is behaving nonaggressively.
Independent biologists have reviewed the evidence and found no empirical support for the shy-bear theory. There is no evidence that a sport hunt instills fear in grizzlies, nor has research been conducted on grizzly bear hunting.
What most bear experts agree on is that American brown bears are genetically inclined to deal aggressively with perceived threats; this is evolved behavior, presumably learned on the treeless periglacial environment of the Arctic during the late Pleistocene, by mothers defending their cubs from many larger, now-extinct predators.
The NRA and SCI’s theory that hunting—as a perceived threat—instills fear in bears is false. My own fifty years of experience with Yellowstone’s wild grizzlies supports this position. Before 1968, I didn’t know squat about grizzly bears, despite having spent a summer in Alaska. Fresh home from two tours as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam, I had gone to Yellowstone to camp and heal from a malaria attack. There, quite accidentally, I ran into a whole bunch of bears.
Here is one of my earliest encounters, from the preface of Grizzly Years:
“The big bear stopped thirty feet in front of me. I slowly worked my hand into my bag and gradually pulled out the Magnum. I peered down the gun barrel into the dull red eyes of the huge grizzly. He gnashed his jaws and lowered his ears. The hair on his hump stood up. We stared at each other for what might have been seconds but felt like hours. I knew that I was not going to pull the trigger. My shooting days were over. I lowered the pistol. The giant bear flicked his ears and looked off to the side. I took a step backward and turned my head toward the trees. I felt something pass between us. The grizzly slowly turned away from me with grace and dignity, and swung into the timber at the end of the meadow. I caught myself breathing heavily again, the flush of blood hot on my face. I felt my life had been touched by enormous power and mystery.”
That was the last time I carried a firearm into grizzly country. I found you don’t need them. I believe to this day that in bear habitat, a gun will get you into more trouble than it will get you out of.
But inexperience continued to land me in the briar patch. In my early years, I got too close to grizzlies, over a hundred encounters where the bear noticed me. That was too close in my book, as my intent was to not have the bears know I was around. When that happened, I stood my ground and the grizzlies usually—but not always—ran away.
Far more dangerously, grizzlies charged me a couple dozen times. About half of them were serious encounters: mothers with cubs or yearlings, often from nearby daybeds where they were sleeping during the middle of the day. This is the source of almost all human mauling by bears (carcasses are also dangerous): attacks by mothers near or on daybeds when humans get too close and carelessly invade the space the bear feels she needs for her cub’s safety.
The sow only cares for her cub’s safety. As long as you are perceived to be a threat, she will continue to charge; and if you do anything stupid, like run or try to climb a tree, she may start chewing on you. If you fight back, the mother griz will keep attacking you until you are no longer seen as a threat to her young. You could die.
The advice to “play dead” during a grizzly attack is sound. Many a victim of a mauling saved his or her life by ceasing to resist the attack, by relaxing. Tough advice, but it works.
More than a dozen different sow grizzlies have aggressively charged me. None completed her charge; no wild bear has ever touched me. A few mother grizzlies started the charge, then quickly veered off and ran away without breaking stride. More often, charging bears came directly at me, and then skidded to a stop. One sow grizzly stopped so close (probably six feet away) she appeared to lean forward and sniff my pant leg.
During the course of all these grizzly charges, my behavior was as nonaggressive as possible: I stood my ground without moving a muscle or blinking an eye and looked off to the side (a head-on orientation can be perceived as confrontational). I also held my arms out, to make myself look bigger, and talked softly to the bear. I hoped to present no threat whatsoever to her cubs. It’s worked every time—so far.
My most recent encounter with a mother grizzly was last June, when my daughter and I were sheltering behind a car-sized glacial erratic on a high mesa in Yellowstone. It was our last hike together before I walked her down the aisle later that summer. It was a blustery, windy day; we couldn’t hear a thing. All of a sudden, the look on my daughter’s face changed and I followed her gaze. There, some fifty feet away, a mother grizzly and her yearling cub were coming over the top of the hillside.
We all saw each other at the same time. The mother bear quickly reared onto her hind legs, smacked her lips, slobbered, and looked all around. This was typical behavior for a startled mother grizzly. I whispered to Laurel, “Don’t move,” and we didn’t move an inch. After several minutes, the bear calmed down. Then, the bears slowly walked past us and sat down on the edge of a cliff thirty feet away, where the mother began nursing the cub. This went on for about five minutes. Afterward, the sow grizzly appeared to graze (it could have been displacement behavior, where the nervous mom just pretended to feed) along the lip of the cliff and the cub started to approach us, not unlike a curious puppy. It came way too close, maybe within fifteen to twenty feet. I stopped his advance by flipping my palm, a gesture I made up in the moment, not knowing if it would work. Laurel quietly recorded a short piece of video on her phone. In the far distance, I could hear the bellows and roars of a mating pair of grizzlies far below. I think the female in front of us had retreated to this high ground to keep her cub away from aggressive male bears, who sometimes kill cubs.
This moment was saturated with wild trust, and sharing it with Laurel etched it forever in my memory. Such intimate encounters with grizzlies are rare with inland bears, like the ones in Glacier and Yellowstone Parks, but it does happen along salmon streams in places like Alaska and British Columbia. On the Nakina River in British Columbia, a mother grizzly once left her three cubs sitting next to me on the bank while she went fishing, caught a salmon, and brought it back to her waiting cubs. Biologist Larry Aumiller recorded this behavior dozens of times at the falls on the McNeil River in Alaska. So did Timothy Treadwell in Katmai on the Alaskan coast years before he made a mistake and was killed and eaten by bears. The popular thinking on this is that bear mothers trust humans because male grizzlies tend to avoid us.
I’ve had one experience with a service dog that I familiarized as a puppy with grizzly bear scat to get him comfortable with the scent. The idea was that we’d walk into the wind and he would alert us by vigorously wiggling his nose, then sit quietly and wait while I dealt with the bear. He passed his field test with flying colors, meeting a mother grizzly and her yearling cub near Glacier Park. I’m not looking to repeat this experiment; his younger collie brother would have gotten us killed.
This spectrum of grizzly behavior hints at a deeper social structure than bears have previously been given credit for. All wild bears in a region appear to know each other and where they rank in a larger social hierarchy. Wild grizzlies are capable of responding to nonaggressive human behavior in surprising ways and we need to give them a chance to do that. The simplistic notion that hunting and shooting grizzlies makes the bears fear humans is flat wrong.
There are a number of economic studies analyzing tourism in and around Yellowstone, revealing who spends what and why. The National Park Service informs us through its surveys that most Yellowstone visitors list viewing wildlife, especially grizzlies and wolves, as the primary reason for their visits. Mountain West News reported in August 2017, “Yellowstone Park tourists spent an estimated $680 million in gateway communities in Montana and Wyoming (last year).”
By contrast, proposed resident grizzly bear hunting licenses in Wyoming would cost $600 in-state and $6,000 for out-of-staters per season. It doesn’t sound like much of a comparison, except for the small consolation that trophy-bear hunters, like Safari Club members, tend to be well-heeled and book the most expensive lodges.
The NRA and SCI’s argument that the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are better fit than the feds to manage trophy animals is disingenuous. It has nothing to do with wildlife management competency, and everything to do with their larger political agenda.
The first objective of these two trophy-hunting groups is to kill grizzlies, and the states—Wyoming and Montana—will help them achieve this goal in record time. My specific distrust of turning brown bear management over to the states arises from how notoriously slow the departments have been to investigate and prosecute obvious cases of poaching. They are protecting illegal killers who, if caught, claim they felt threatened in some way—the “self-defense” argument. Typically, they say the bear reared, or looked at them in the wrong way, and they had to kill it. Even the wardens know this is a bald-faced lie—a rearing grizzly is the opposite of a threat. But subsequent prosecution is lax or nonexistent. To justify this nonenforcement, the state game managers say that if they prosecute poaching too aggressively, their sources of information about bear-mortality reporting will dry up. If delisting had survived its legal challenges and a hunting season was opened, illegal killing of grizzlies would have become much easier and would have loomed as the primary threat to Yellowstone’s entire bear population.
Far more transparent and important, I think, is the issue of public lands. I believe these national groups have become involved with the fate of grizzlies in order to serve a broader agenda: converting public land to private ownership. To put it bluntly, stealing the land that belongs to all Americans and delivering it to the private sector for financial exploitation. They would auction off the vast wildlands of the Bureau of Land Management, national forests, and wildlife refuges, and try to open national monuments and even the national parks to resource extraction, like mining, drilling, and logging.
This so-called states’ rights movement threatens all public lands. It’s not just the Yellowstone ecosystem and Bears Ears National Monument that are imperiled, but also the underlying philosophy that made these places possible in the first place. The Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, and Antiquities Act are all under siege. The NRA and SCI agendas on wildlife and wilderness issues are, at their core, driven by the desire to dismantle our wild heritage.
In the early 1980s, I served as an expert witness on grizzly bears for Glacier National Park in federal court. The judge asked me and the other expert witness how many grizzlies (defined as different bears per day) we had seen in our lives, and because I had watched grizzly bears at Yellowstone’s garbage dumps and at salmon streams as well as in berry patches and meadows, my answer was over a thousand. Does that make me an expert? Maybe for the purposes of that particular court, but otherwise I have my doubts. What teaches a person the most about grizzly behavior? Watching wild bears go about their natural business, without disturbing the animal’s activity. Nature is a great classroom. Salmon streams are good, but you can also learn a great deal by watching bears far from humans in meadows and berry patches.
I’ve spent time with Yellowstone’s grizzlies each year for the past five decades, beginning in 1968. The first fifteen years were the most intense. During that time I filmed bears full-time in the Yellowstone and Glacier National Park ecosystems. Typically, I’d spend the first six weeks of spring in Yellowstone, and then come back for October. The rest of the season, I filmed in Glacier and worked seasonal jobs for the Park Service.
Much of the time, I worked alone, lugging my heavy 16mm camera gear around in a backpack, camping in the backcountry for a couple of weeks at a time.
The goal was to film wild grizzlies close up, but not so close that the bears would be spooked by the camera noise; I wanted to capture natural grizzly behavior without the bears becoming aware of my presence. Of course, I didn’t always succeed.
My strategy for finding grizzlies in Yellowstone was split between two general approaches: I could go out into good spring habitat, find a set of fresh bear tracks, and follow them to where the grizzly was feeding. Sometimes, this took several days of tracking to catch up with the bear. Compared with today, grizzlies were scarce in Yellowstone during the 1970s.
The other, more efficient strategy was to set up on a hill or promontory where bears were likely to come by, and then just wait. It helped if there was a winter-killed elk or bison carcass nearby.
Using these methods, spread over three decades, I managed to sneak up on at least 200 unsuspecting grizzlies in and around Yellowstone and Glacier parks, to distances within about one hundred yards. Most of those approached were captured on film, which is now archived at Texas Tech University.
From my experience, I don’t think dispatching brown bears with a weapon capable of bringing down a B-52 would be very challenging. I could have shot any of those bears; grizzlies are easy to hunt. Easy, say, compared to black bears, who are spooky forest creatures and a test for a fair-chase (no baits or dogs) hunter. Grizzlies, by contrast, are open-country animals and their dominance at the top of the food chain means they don’t automatically run away.
But does tracking down a wild griz with a camera equate with trophy hunting? Absolutely not, as any Safari Club International member would point out. Why? I didn’t pull the trigger. There was no kill. Without the kill, there is no “authentic hunt.”
Here is a crucial distinction between trophy hunters and me: I don’t hunt predators. I wouldn’t shoot a bear for a cool million.
How do you justify killing an innocent animal of exceptional carriage that you don’t intend to eat and that poses no threat to you? A few trophy hunters try to answer this question, but most see no problem; they kill the big grizzly or the lion with a huge mane because they can. There are arguments: Money for permits and licenses can be spent on conservation. You may trophy hunt because it runs in the family. Or because male archetypes like Teddy Roosevelt or Ernest Hemingway did it.
When we think of trophy hunters, the photo of Donald Trump Jr. holding a freshly severed elephant tail may come to mind, but I recognize a few other types, often deeply skilled in the ways of the wild and dedicated to a fair chase. The ones I know tend to be bowhunters. These people are probably the exception: They know why they are out there and are grounded in their own ethic.
Of those Safari Club members who have shown any curiosity at all about their deadly sport, it’s probably fair to say the bulk have drawn their killer philosophies from mid-twentieth century sources, especially a little book called Meditations on Hunting, written in 1942 by elite Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. This book is quoted very often in the literature of trophy hunting.
Ortega tells us death is essential because without it there is no authentic hunting. In short, one does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.
The author Tovar Cerulli’s critique of Ortega is valuable, “the animal’s death is a ‘sign’ that the hunt was ‘authentic’ and ‘real.’” This European view of killing and the hunt owes nothing to the roughly 315,000 years of Homo sapiens’ wildlife experience: After all, we evolved chasing animals in the Pleistocene, in habitats whose remnants we now call the wilderness.
Throw in some colonial dominance over the beasts, a little Hemingway, and you find a tremendous amount of masculine bullshit in consideration of what constitutes an authentic experience in outdoor blood sports. Cerulli continues, “Ortega celebrates the ‘exemplary moral spirit of the sporting hunter’ who hunts for ‘diversion.’ He looks down on the ‘utilitarian’ hunter, like ‘Paleolithic man and … the poacher of any epoch,’ [or individuals like me] who hunt for food.”
For the record, I do hunt, mostly game birds and the occasional deer. In my youth, I shot a porcupine and a raccoon; I was the only kid in high school eating raccoon and porcupine sandwiches. I eat what I kill, and I have a bunch of guns. I don’t hunt predators or trophy-sized animals (for practical and culinary reasons).
Despite a few female members, groups like the Safari Club are solidly rooted in the masculine institutions of patriarchy and clanship. Within the fraternal organization, intense competition abounds. If your buddy bags a huge kudu or leopard, you’d better get a bigger one. This deadly rivalry about who gets the best trophy is regarded as either the purest form of sport, as seen by the Safari Club, or one of the worst contests in our society, as viewed by people like me.
The time for these ceremonial executions is over. We lost our authenticity somewhere in the colonial past. These often endangered and expendable trophy creatures could use a break from recreational killing. We don’t need a Yellowstone grizzly hunt. This argument would be a silly one if the consequences were not so deadly.
The man holding the cut-off elephant tail may take exception, but we are many decades down the road from the faded photos of Teddy Roosevelt’s rhino in 1909 or Hemingway’s lion photo in 1934—archetypical images of man’s dominion over the animals. Our view of seeing ourselves as separate from nature is the path that has delivered us to today’s peril. The year 2021 finds us in the middle of the sixth great extinction, largely driven by climate change and entirely caused by human activity.
The fact that we are still debating trophy hunting shows us how far we still need to go to stop the plunder of the Earth. The first critters to go in a great extinction tend to be the big ones, especially the large and rare mammals favored by trophy hunters, like the rhino whose disappearance is being driven by poaching. Will human civilization escape the planet’s baking heat? This endangered species list does not exclude two-legged primates; the hot winds of climate change are coming for us all.
Doug Peacock is an American naturalist, outdoorsman, and author. He is best known for his book Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness, a memoir of his experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, much of which he spent alone in the wilderness of the western U.S. observing grizzly bears. He co-founded Save the Yellowstone Grizzly, Wildlife Damage Review, Vital Ground and Round River Conservation Studies. He serves as chairman of the board of directors for Round River, which works with indigenous people and governments in Namibia, Botswana, North, South, and Central America to develop conservation strategies protecting and enhancing intact ecosystems. Round River has emerged as one of the most successful medium-sized conservation groups anywhere, having contributed to the preservation of more than 20 million acres of wilderness. Doug lives in Emigrant, Montana, and spends considerable time in the Sonoran Desert, southeast Utah and with the grizzlies of Glacier and Yellowstone national parks.
Books by Doug Peacock: The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates of Men and Bears, co-written with Andrea Peacock (2006); Walking It Off: A Veteran’s Chronicle of War and Wilderness; ¡Baja! (1991); Grizzly Years: In Search of the American Wilderness (1990); In the Shadow of the Sabertooth (2013).