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Keeping the Grizzly

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Doug Peacock, with TRJ's Dennis Nicholls in the background. Photo by Trish Gannon Doug Peacock, with TRJ's Dennis Nicholls in the background. Photo by Trish Gannon

Doug Peacock speaks eloquently on behalf of one of nature's grandest predators

“The bears provided a calendar for me when I got back from Vietnam, when one year would fade into the next and I would lose great hunks of time to memory with no events or people to recall their passing. I had trouble with a world whose idea of vitality was anything other than the naked authenticity of living or dying. The world paled, as did all that my life had been before, and I found myself estranged from my own time. Wild places and grizzly bears solved this problem." 

-Doug Peacock, The Grizzly Years


Many young men and women who served in Vietnam found it hard to adjust to life when they got home. They found solace wherever they could—in drugs or alcohol, the support of family, as activists opposing the war, in psychiatric therapy. Doug Peacock, a Green Beret medic, found his solace in the wilderness, in the company of the country’s largest predator—the grizzly bear.

His story is told in the 1989 film “Peacock’s War,” which will play at Sandpoint’s Panida Theater on Saturday, July 24. The movie has won many awards, including Best of Festival at the Telluride MountainFilm Festival, and its arrival in Sandpoint, sponsored by the Yaak Valley Forest Council, coincides with the 40th anniversary of our nation’s Wilderness Act, as well as with the first Yaak Wilderness Festival. Doug Peacock will be on hand to speak during the showing, as will the Yaak’s own Rick Bass, novelist, essayist, short story writer and protagonist of wilderness.

Wilderness is an important topic in the Yaak, a place Bass describes as “one of the places forgotten or overlooked by the Wilderness Act of 1964.” In the Cabinet-Yaak Wilderness, located 30 miles north of Troy, Mont., a population of 20 grizzly are said to live—with perhaps another 20 making their home in the Selkirks. The area is considered a “critical corridor core” for the bear.

It’s the grizzly, along with current efforts to downgrade the status of the bear as “threatened,” that bring Doug Peacock, a legend in the environmental movement, to town.

“The bears belong to everybody,” he told a Wyoming reporter last year. “If they de-list the grizzly, that’s it. It’s a huge responsibility. Where are the bears going to be in 35 years?”

Grizzly were listed as a threatened population in 1985. Then, it was believed the total number of grizzlies in the lower 48 states were somewhere between 200 and 250. In the early 19th century it was estimated as many as 50,000 grizzly roamed the western states as far south as Mexico. Now, there’s somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400. The largest concentration—almost 600 bears—make their home in Yellowstone National Park with the remainder found in northern Idaho, Montana and Washington. Forest officials believe those numbers are enough to guarantee the continued existence of the bear in the lower 48. Others are not so sure, concerned that many of the bears live in small populations particularly vulnerable to incursions in their territory.

Peacock, who also wrote a best-selling book, The Grizzly Years in 1990, is believed to have spent more time with grizzlies in the wild than anyone else in the world. He believes the bruins provide a context for fear and that, “fear has always been the basis for our humanity and our intelligence.

“We evolved in places whose remnants today we call the wilderness. And I think that no species can persist without sustaining the conditions of its genesis. So, really, we are as much endangered as the grizzly bears. The fate of humans and grizzlies is a single, collective one.”

He’s not alone in such thinking. Henry David Thoreau himself once reminded us, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”

Although home to grizzly and other wildlife, and called the “Cabinet-Yaak Wilderness,” there is actually no designated wilderness area in the Yaak valley. The Yaak Valley Forest Council wants to see this area, which they describe as a place where “nothing has ever gone extinct,” stay wild. The Wilderness Festival is designed to honor the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act which said, “A wilderness...is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." The festival hopes to draw attention to the importance of maintaining these places in our world.

Held at The Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak, Mont. on July 31, it promises, they say,  to be “a wild, but family-safe, full day of music, food and fun in celebration of the spirit of Wilderness.”

Proceeds from the festival will benefit the Yaak Valley Forest Council's mission of “seeking diversity, balance and wholeness in the community and the forest through habitat restoration, conservation and preservation, as well as economic development based on these issues.”

There will be silent and live auctions, free children's games and prizes, live music by such names as Amy Martin, the Broken Valley Road Show, Alan Lane and the Hey Dan Rhythm Band, along with the raffle of a Perception Swifty Kayak, an Orvis flyfishing combo, Patagonia clothing and other great prizes.

Kicking it off, of course, is Peacock’s appearance at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint on the 24th. Rick Bass, a member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council and the man responsible for bringing Peacock into our corner of the northwest, says his old friend was a perfect choice to draw attention to wilderness issues.

“I think what he has to say—and what he has been through—will speak to Montanans and Idahoans with greater timeliness than that of anyone else in the country, at this point in time,” Bass explained. “It's one thing for an affluent, urban professional to lobby for protection of the public wildlands, but when a man, a Green Beret who has put his life on the line for his country in a questionable, ill-fated, horrific war (not that there is any other kind), and who has suffered disabilities as a result—disabilities that were subsequently healed by the American wilderness, and the presence of the awesome grizzlies he loves and admires—steps up and says "Wilderness Matters," people listen. And when it is someone with Doug Peacock's intelligence and eloquence, they listen well. 

“We need to listen to what he has to say about war, about wilderness, about wild country, and about how to survive not just our rages, but, in the words of Terry Tempest Williams, our affections, our passions, as well,” he added. “Reminiscent of Bob Marshall a generation earlier, or, in this region, our own Dennis Nicholls, Doug Peacock, along with his friend Terry Tempest Williams, are the brightest examples I can think of when I consider the wilderness spirit in America.”

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

wildlife, wilderness, grizzly, grizzly bear, Doug Peacock, Yaak Valley Forest Council, Wilderness Act, Rick Bass, Cabinet-Yaak Wilderness, Troy, The Grizzly Years, Peacock's War

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