In 1992, four fresh-faced students joined conservationist Jim Tolisano in Colorado's San Juan Mountains in search of grizzly bears. Grizzlies are thought to be extinct in the state, but sighting rumors circulated, and Round River Conservation Studies' founders Dennis Sizemore and Doug Peacock -- who inspired the character Hayduke in Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang -- had combed the mountains for bears the previous two summers. Collecting scat by day and listening to evening campfire lectures, the students were Round River's trial run.
The organization now sends groups of six to 10 students per semester to work on conservation projects in Africa, South America and Canada. Earning credit through Utah State University, they spend 12 weeks doing scientific fieldwork. Their work complements that of the organization's research team, who develop science-based conservation plans for communities and governments around the world.
High Country News recently called Sizemore at his Salt Lake City office to discuss the organization's beginnings and the "sloppy" business of conservation.
High Country News: According to a Rick Bass essay, you and Doug Peacock first talked about the idea of Round River over a bottle of George Dickel Whisky and a strip of antelope tenderloin. Is that how it happened?
Dennis Sizemore: I went and found Dougie in Tucson in 1991, and enticed him with a bottle of No. 12 and a little strap of loin. I first wrote him and asked if I could come down. He sent back a postcard that said, "I ain't no schoolmarm, but I might be able to help."
I got to know Doug years before, when I worked as a grizzly bear biologist at the University of Montana. He was working on the lookout tower up on Huckleberry Mountain in Glacier National Park. … The first time I met him, in the Northern Lights Saloon in Polebridge, Mont., he told me to "leave the fucking bears alone." He thought the way we were then conducting research -- basically trapping, drugging and following (them) around -- that there might be more ethical ways to accomplish the same outcome. That's something we try to embrace in our organization: We try to be as hands-off as possible.
HCN: Did you have experiences in the West before starting Round River that shaped what the organization does today?
Sizemore: I grew up in Wyoming and northern New Mexico, hiking and fishing with my dad. If we saw anybody else, he was upset and we had to move: "This place is getting run over by all those bastards from Colorado." I learned a way of walking across the landscape as a hunter, and looking for things. (Doug) Peacock always says the places he loves most are where there are animals that can kill and eat him. That elevates the experience: You recognize your appropriate place in the food chain, and that changes how you respond to so many other things in your life.
I always tell the student program staff, "Whatever we're doing out there academically, do not get in the way of the place doing its teaching." The landscape and its inhabitants are the teachers; we're just facilitating that communication.
HCN: From 1994 to 1998, you had students working on Mexican wolf reintroduction in southeastern Arizona. What did they do?
Sizemore: (They) were looking at prey density (in the proposed reintroduction areas), doing vegetation studies, and putting on town meetings in places where it was contentious to have meetings to talk about wolves.
HCN: Ranchers weren't very happy about the wolf reintroduction, right?
Sizemore: We'd have these guys show up at the campfire, and they were trying to pull the students one way. The students kind of went back and forth while they were trying to form their own opinions. At times they'd be far more sympathetic to someone trying to have their livelihood and their cows, and then go back to, "No, it's got to be about the wolves."… In some cases, it has to be either/or, but in most cases it's a little bit of give and take.