Deep in Montana's Flathead National Forest, one of the last wild places a self-respecting grizzly bear can make a home in the lower 48 states, Doug Peacock spots a fuchsia ribbon tied to a larch pine. "Those bastards," he growls, tearing off what turns out to be a series of markers designating trees to be chain-sawed. "They're building a trail, that's what they're doing! They just can't leave things alone."

"They" are forest rangers; Doug Peacock is a man obsessed by grizzlies. For nearly 20 years he has waged a solitary—and not always strictly legal—war to preserve the bears' dwindling habitat. A century ago, some 100,000 grizzlies roamed the continental U.S.; today, fewer than 1,000 remain. "There are damn few wild bears left in the lower 48," says Peacock. "They already have enough trouble with hunters. I don't think we should tame every piece of wilderness. We can't have the grizzly on our terms. We have to accept him as he is."

Peacock, 48, may have spent more time among the bears, on terms close to their own, than any other human. His recent book, Grizzly Years, chronicles the period from 1976 to 1983, during which he spent summers in a glass-wall tower on a remote peak called Huckleberry Mountain high in Montana's Glacier National Park. Technically, Peacock was a Park Service fire lookout, but over the years he observed more fur than flames in an area he dubbed the Grizzly Hilton. There he watched scores of grizzlies gamboling, hunting and mating, and carefully recorded it all in notebooks. "It was magic, opulent living," he says. "Every day I'd have that great vista to look out on. When the weather closed in, I felt like Captain Nemo in my own glass ship. There were northern lights flashing at night, thunderstorms rolling through. Then the bears would come—grizzlies everywhere."

The danger, the beauty and Peacock's need to be alone first drew him to the bears back in 1968. He had just returned from a 17-month tour in Vietnam and was haunted by violent memories. "I didn't want to be close to anybody," he says. "I couldn't communicate with my family. If it didn't involve living and dying. I didn't care. It wasn't my world anymore. The jungle was my friend in Vietnam, so I felt most comfortable going into the woods. It was an instinct."

Peacock retreated to the backcountry in Yellowstone National Park. One day he surprised a grizzly sow and her two cubs, who had wandered close to a hot spring in which he sat, naked. He jumped up and ran toward the nearest tree. Disoriented from the heat of the spring, he hit the trunk face first. Peacock scrambled to safety; the grizzlies eventually ambled off.

The encounter, he says, liberated him. "The restraint demonstrated by the mother grizzly, who by all rights should have charged me, was remarkable," he notes in Grizzly Years. "The grizzly radiates potency," he writes later. "He carries the physical strength and thorniness of disposition that allows him to attack or kill almost anytime he cares to. But almost always, he chooses not to. That is power beyond a bully's swaggering. It is a kind of restraint that commands awe—a muscular act of grace."

It was the kind of strength that Peacock had been raised to appreciate. His father, a scoutmaster, and his mother, a schoolteacher, had taught him about the outdoors as he grew up in Michigan. Peacock went on to study geology at the University of Michigan, but he "hated school so much" that he dropped out in 1964. After knocking around the country for two years, he enlisted in the Army. "I didn't give a s—," he says. "I was driving a motorcycle too fast, drinkin' a lot of wine, hangin' around with people I liked but didn't love. My life was a mess. It seemed perfectly logical to join up."

Peacock enlisted as a medic with the Green Berets, arriving in Vietnam in 1966. When the war threatened to overwhelm him, he would unfold a map he carried of his beloved Rocky Mountains and travel the ridges, peaks and basins in his imagination. Twenty-four hours after the last battle of the Tet offensive, Peacock was discharged. At first, he chose a life of "migratory poverty." Not exactly a gregarious type to begin with, he limited his contact with people to a simple "Hello" or "Fill 'er up." His anger could be explosive: Once he put his fist through a motel television set after watching a program about oil's threat to wildlife; on another occasion, a telephone operator didn't connect a call quickly enough for Peacock, so he blasted the phone booth with a 12-gauge shotgun.

After about a year on the road, Peacock met writer and radical environmentalist Edward Abbey during a stopover in Tucson. The two men discovered a common rage at the loss of America's wilderness, and Peacock liked Abbey's philosophy of taking nonviolent action against those he saw as polluters and despoilers. Peacock, who became the model for the character George Washington Hayduke in Abbey's cult classic The Monkey Wrench Gang, admits to stealing the cattle of ranchers who shot bears and mountain lions. "I ended up doing it for a renewal of the spirit as much as anything else," he says.

Each summer Abbey would moonlight as a fire lookout for the National Park Service; in 1973 he suggested that Peacock do the same. That summer Peacock was assigned to North Cascades National Park in Washington. In 1976 he was transferred to Glacier. There he began his quest to understand the grizzly that had spared him eight years earlier in Yellowstone. He railed against such Park Service research policies as helicopter censuses, tranquilizing and radio collaring of the bears. "From my slightly twisted point of view," he writes, "preserving grizzlies was a radical idea; it meant putting the brakes on a world gone mad."

Peacock's years of experience have led him to some controversial conclusions: "If a mother [grizzly] charges you from 100 feet, stand your ground." he counsels. "Keep talking to her. I believe a charging grizzly is in the process of deciding whether it's going to complete the charge. I stretch out my arms; it makes me look bigger. She doesn't want to kill you. she wants to render you ineffective so you won't threaten her cubs. If one did come." he adds. "I'd hit the ground and play dead."

Most experts, it is worth noting, disagree with Peacock about standing one's ground and talking to a charging bear. "I don't think his advice is best for the general public." says Charles Jonkel, a bear researcher at the University of Montana and a friend of Peacock's. "If a bear tells you with its body you're not wanted... leave the scene."

Peacock grudgingly admits he has become more cautious. "For years I did a lot of this s—because I didn't care whether I lived or died," he says. "I didn't have any fear of bears, and for a long time part of me didn't especially care about being chewed on." That attitude began to change after Peacock met Lisa Anne Whitehead, now 38, in 1975. Married five years later, they traveled back and forth between Glacier National Park and a small trailer in Tucson for eight years. "It was a hard life," says Peacock. "I never made any money, but that didn't bother Lisa. But once we had a baby, things had to change. We bought a house in Tucson." In 1983 Peacock quit the Park Service to write, lecture and make documentary films about grizzlies. "He's calmer now," says Lisa. "I think his own mortality is creeping up on him. He wants to see his kids grow up."

That isn't to say that Peacock is completely domesticated. Each fall he leaves his wife and two children, Laurel, 9, and Colin. 6, in Tucson and travels back to the Grizzly Hilton to check up on old friends. "All night long I hear the grizzlies moving," he says. "I hardly get any sleep at all. It's a magic touchstone in my life."

Susan Reed, Lorenzo Benet in the Flathead National Forest

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet.