- Louisa Willcox
In Memory of Brian Peck: Watchdog of the Grizzly, Warrior for the Wild, Friend
My friend Brian Peck passed away at his Columbia Falls, MT, home in the company of his loving wife Linda on November 7, 2021, after a short battle with cancer. Brian and I had worked together for three decades on behalf of the wild, especially animals with big teeth — such as grizzly bears.
Brian was born on November 3, 1947, into a New England family with roots dating back to the Mayflower. He dedicated his life to the protection of all animals wild and free. He had an indefatigable enthusiasm, irrepressible sense of humor and wide breadth of knowledge garnered from many years on the ground in the natural world.
Brian’s life is an example of how one can navigate a world that is unjust to wild animals and leave them safer and better understood. He also left behind numerous his students and colleagues whose compassion and motivation deepened under his influence – even as they chuckled at his jokes.
Lighting the Path Toward Compassionate Treatment for Wild Animals
Brian Peck was my friend, my colleague for thirty years and a fellow warrior for the wild. He was, to me, a beacon lighting a path toward more just and reverential treatment of our fellow nonhuman travelers.
We shared a passion for creatures vulnerable to human avarice, malice and disregard, especially for ones with big teeth—notably grizzlies. I admired Brian’s tenacity, sense of humor and uncompromising spirit at a time when wild animals -- and indeed the earth -- face ever increasing threats.
In these remarks I hope to capture some aspects of the Brian I knew. But I admit at the outset that I cannot do justice to this brilliant quirky being, as indeed it is impossible for any of us to summarize another. Like all of us, Brian had many facets, but one stands out from the rest: Brian was at least part grizzly bear – ferocious, nurturing, curious, and full of joy and love. I think it was not accidental that he often signed emails to friends: “Growlingly, Brian.”
Since Brian passed, I have been going through emails he sent me over the years, hundreds of them, that reminded me of his humor, his ideals, and his huge heart. And in part of what I offer here, I hope to allow Brian to speak in his own words.
What got me started on this project was reading his last email to me, as I sat like many of you, in a state of shock that he had passed so suddenly. It was sent just a couple weeks prior, on October 16, 2021, with the telling subject line “Speak up for our future!” about Montana’s congressional redistricting. The one before that read: “Wyoming’s delusions never cease.” Scrolling down, I found this about a suspect grizzly death: “Shoot First, Verify Later.”
Turns out that I had saved years of emails from Brian, plus lots of correspondence in hard copy. Reading his correspondence was a window on the life of Brian, not to be confused with the classic Monte Python film -- although he would likely wink at the reference.
But I should back up and talk about our history together. I am not sure when exactly I met Brian, but it was something like 30 years ago. He and Linda lived in Boulder at the time, and was affiliated with National Audubon Society, while I served as Program Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman. I recall that Brian came to Bozeman to participate in a strategy meeting – I cannot remember if it was about wolves (this was before they were reintroduced) or if it involved grizzlies or both. What I do remember is the flash I had: Wow, this guy is larger than life – and a kindred spirit.
We began to work together informally, and years later, he shared that he and Linda were moving to Montana. A light bulb went off. I had by then moved to the Sierra Club to start a new campaign advocating for grizzly bears and included him on our team. He continued as a key member of my team when I went to Natural Resources Defense Council. I did not foresee that our collaboration would last formally for about 15 years and informally for twice that time.
I have long been obsessed with recovery of Yellowstone grizzlies, which seems always to be ground zero of the political conflict over bears -- although hardly our most important population. So that meant when we expanded work at Sierra Club and then at NRDC – and I can’t believe Brian agreed to this – he took the lead for our team on the rest of grizzlies in the contiguous U.S.: the Northern Continental Divide population, as well as the lesser known and often forgotten bears of the Cabinet Yaak, Northern Idaho’s Selkirks, and the North Cascades. I relied hugely on his judgement and insight during our work dealing with the onslaught of challenges.
Watchdog of the Grizzly
Brian emerged as one of the key grizzly bear watchdogs of our grizzly bear populations in northern Montana. And somehow Brian also kept an eye on the potential for recovering bears much farther south -- in his former home state of Colorado as well as the Southwest.
As the years went by, my trust in and admiration for Brian only deepened. I can’t recall ever disagreeing over policy or strategy. To me, Brian stood for justice, dignity for all beings, and facts – as well as the notion that animals deserve a second chance and that the long view should guide policy.
Brian was a natural born teacher, and over the years, we led many donor and media tours for Sierra Club and NRDC into Yellowstone. Time and again, I watched Brian -- patient, inspiring, with a twinkle in his eye and often a funny story -- open the subtle and magical landscape of Yellowstone to a group. He could and did routinely offer new insights about the natural system to those who thought they were experts, including yours truly. I always loved it when we got to lead a group together in the field, because he had an incredible eye and was a phenomenal birder, so I would always learn something new about harlequin ducks, or sandhill cranes, or goshawks, and more.
As many of you know, Brian did a great wolf howl. He told me that one time, near Glacier, a wolf had howled back. Over the years, I found that this gift came in handy to assemble meetings. Gathering activists and reporters can be like herding cats, but no one could chatter over his howl. Hey Brian, I would say when a coffee break had lingered way too long, time to unleash your inner wolf.
Brian was unmatched in his ferocity and perseverance. And I have never known someone to sacrifice so many holidays on behalf of protecting the wild. That is because, like clockwork, right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, government officials would often cynically release terrible proposals -- logging, energy, mining -- when they assumed people were too distracted to comment. Not Brian. As an additional deterrent, these proposals would invariably be defended by hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of mind-numbing text, that only someone with Brian’s patience and determination could wade through. Linda can attest to the number of times that Brian dropped everything over a holiday for the bears. I lost track.
Much of Brian’s communications with government officials went like this: Here are the regulations, here is how you violated them, here is why it matters for bears, wolves, whatever, and now what are you going to do to fix the problem? A typical Brian comment letter ran 10, 20 or more pages, because, in part, what he was doing was flagging the issue for potential litigation – and that happened a lot. If he liked the recipient and thought the problem was fixable, he would say so. If not, he would close with something like: “Tomorrow is a new day.”
A key point here is that conservationists have been -- and continue to be -- enormously successful saving bears and their habitat due to the work of talented lawyers. And their successes in turn, depend on the painstaking work of advocates such as Brian to identify the problems early. But few are willing to give up holidays with friends and family – when bears are snoozing – to give bears the best chance they can get in court and to help make sure that they wake up to a safer world.
Of Humor and A Sharp Stick
I was surprised to see how many weird, fun facts enlivened his letters. This from a letter about the inadequacies of funding for Fish and Wildlife Service to implement the ESA:
*The USFWS budget for 2016 was roughly $165,000,000. * In contrast, in 2016, Americans spent $8.5 Billion on Halloween, including $2.5 Billion on Candy - enough to fund the ESA for 15 years (USFWS). * In addition, in 2016, Americans spent $656 Billion (I think it actually hit $700 Billion) on Christmas - enough to fund the ESA for - wait for it - 3975 years!!
But you did not want to be on the receiving end of Brian’s wrath when he thought it appropriate. One thing that made both of us furious was the unnecessary taking of a precious grizzly bear’s life -- a bear that belonged to all of us -- and the government’s opaqueness when reporting deaths. As many of you know, this continues to be a real problem in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem – and of course bear deaths matter because the species is threatened and because their reproductive rates are so low.
Brian was the sharp end of the stick who reliably and relentlessly pushed government officials to do their job with the northern populations, not only to report bear deaths but to do more to prevent them. Too late for Brian’s ears, at a recent meeting of grizzly bear managers, Cecily Costello, and the recipient of much of his criticisms as well as lead state grizzly bear official for the NCDE population, highlighted his contributions in front of the others and said that Brian will be missed. The point being that outside criticism like what Brian provided matters to holding our government accountable -- and I would argue, to making our democracy function.
Brian made some people uncomfortable because compromise was not in his DNA. Given how much wild country has been roaded, cutover, and drilled, we are down to about 3% of former numbers of grizzlies and maybe 2% of the number of wolves that roamed North America when the first Europeans arrived. The largest remaining refuges for these species lie in the Northern Rockies states because they harbor such abundant wilderness. Brian was acutely sensitive to the vulnerability of these lands to greed in the form of chainsaws and bulldozers -- and never missed an opportunity to speak in defense of preservation.
He was also unafraid to call out groups that gave away too much. In one blistering letter to the Montana Wilderness Association in response to the group partnering with the Forest Service on yet another destructive logging project, he wrote: “you have hopped in bed with the devil when it comes to protecting Big Wild Creatures in Big Wild Places.” And this: “Looks like another “Collaborative Capitulation" that sacrifices Wilderness smack in the middle of a key linkage zone between the NCDE and Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem.”
And after a frustrating exchange with these and other groups supporting premature removal of endangered species protections for grizzlies, Brian wrote me this: “I have repeatedly told these groups that we can’t settle for a low recovery bar because that will be the High Water Mark and what we get. I don’t get the impression that anyone is listening - kind of like wolf “recovery” where most groups settled for 100 wolves per recovery area as equaling recovery, and the government and wolf opponents used that to grease the skids for premature delisting.”
Then he ended with this: “Got time to chat next week? It would be nice to talk to a sane person again.” Brian was, above all, devoted and loyal to his friends, and I feel blessed he considered me one. One thing that popped out at me in his correspondence was how much and how often he bucked me up, often after orthopedic surgeries, or at times when I was unsure. “Once more into the Breach!” Or “How’s the shoulder oh bionic one?” Or: “Live long and prosper and RAISE HELL!” Or: “It’s show time! Take no prisoners, give no quarter.”
This was one of his favorite lines after a victory: “A Grand Slam in the Ninth Inning!!”
As the years went on, we talked more about death and loss and burnout. But he would try to lighten these topics up too. Here is Brian, comforting me over the loss of a dear friend: “Sorry to hear about Margie. Too many good folks leaving us while the scum of humanity lives on. Growlingly, Brian.” Apropos of this moment too, my friend.
The death, in 2016, of John Craighead, world famous scientist and grizzly bear researcher, hit both of us hard. The following year, we lost Chuck Jonkel, pioneer bear researcher and founder of the conservation group, Great Bear Foundation. Brian was especially close to Chuck who shared his rebellious, uncompromising spirit and commitment to education. Brian told me several times that these deaths constituted the end of an era. I did not argue with him then, but I would now, offering that their spirit lives on in the work of countless others who have been inspired by them, who continue to work to save the wild. And the same is true of Brian’s many students, now scattered all over the country and indeed the world, who have more curiosity and compassion for nature because of their experience with him in the wild.
Fighting for Ancient Promise
This brings me back to Brian’s relatives, grizzly bears. Grizzlies that have long represented renewal and regeneration, the power of life to continue after death. A mother bear disappears in a hole in the ground, seemingly dies for five months, and reemerges in the spring with tiny cubs by her side. So it is no surprise that the ancients saw the bear not only as an animal that mirrors ourselves, but as a symbol of the promise of transformation. In fighting for the bear, Brian was fighting for this ancient promise.
I will leave you with this last bit from Brian, this written to my husband David at a time he was feeling burnt out and discouraged: “Sorry to hear that this latest confrontation with the forces of darkness and evil has left you (temporarily) burnt out. I recommend a triple scoop cone of “Chocolate Runs Through It” ice cream from Willcoxins in Livingston. If that doesn’t work, try this:
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world and am free.” - Wendell Berry
Once More Into the Breach, Brian”
Maybe now is a good time for all of us, together, to howl Brian home.
Donations in Brian’s honor can be made to Swan View Coalition (www.swanview.org); Flathead Spay and Neuter Task Force (www.flatheadspayneuter.org); Vital Ground Foundation (www.vitalground.org); Wolves of the Rockies (https://www.wolvesoftherockies.org); or Flathead Audubon (https://flatheadaudubon.org).