Anyone reading up on California history would come to the conclusion that the state’s residents love grizzly bears. The first clue is the state’s flag, which is emblazoned with the majestic mammal.
California’s symbolic grizzly— In 1846, the grizzly first represented the territory that would become California when the bear was selected as a symbol of strength and courage by American settlers during the Bear Flag Revolt, hence the name. In 1849, it was added to the state seal.
It’s the golden-tipped grizzly that is the namesake of the University of California at Berkeley’s Golden Bears, founded in 1868. In 1919, when the southern campus of the University of California opened, known today as UCLA, Bruins, a literary word for bear, became that school’s mascot.
Eradicating the California grizzly— Early settlers in California were horribly cruel to the grizzly bear. As folks migrated to the vast state with their livestock and chickens, situating these defenseless animals in the midst of the grizzlies’ territory, they would shoot the great bears on sight if they dared give into their carnivorous instincts.
Historically, the grizzly’s range included much of the western U.S., including nearly everywhere in California from the Pacific Coast to the Sierra mountains except for the desert regions. They were rapidly hunted off when they ventured too close to the newly settled ranches or towns, but they were also used for sport, pitted in an arena against more defenseless creatures for an audience’s pleasure. The bears, usually the more powerful of the contestants, would be handicapped in some form: sometimes injured or stressed by their capture; drunk, as liquor was used as a tranquilizer for transport; deprived of food and water; or bound by ropes or chains during the event.
Cubs were stolen from their mothers and trained for entertainment that would provide income for their captor. Adult grizzly bears were lassoed and dragged into towns as a spectacle of man’s dominance before being slaughtered.
Varying accounts dispute the exact date, but somewhere around the mid 1920s, all grizzlies in California had been exterminated. One report states that the last California grizzly was shot in 1922 near Horse Corral Meadow in what is today Giant Sequoia National Monument. Yes, Tulare County holds the dubious honor of killing the state’s last known grizzly bear.
In 1953, California’s infatuation with the grizzly continued when the bear was designated the official state animal. In the state today, the bears no longer roam and are nothing more than a symbol.
Proposal to reintroduce the grizzly— But now the most populous state in the nation has a decision to make. In June, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal petition calling on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand its plans for recovering grizzly bears, including returning the animals to vast portions of its native habitat in the American West. The petition identifies 110,000 square miles of potential grizzly habitat in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and California (7,743 square miles).
The group states that this amount of space could support as many as 6,000 grizzlies, potentially tripling the current population of 1,500 to 1,800 in the Lower 48. The petition calls on the USFWS to revise its 1993 recovery plan to include suitable grizzly habitat across the West.
Dwindling populations— In 1975, grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The bears’ range today consists of four percent of the lands that they used to roam, including the Greater Yellowstone region (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho) and the northern Rocky Mountains (Montana-Idaho). But the populations are isolated, and the Center for Biological Diversity fears that inbreeding, climate change, invasive species, and human population growth will all combine to lead to the bears’ extinction.
But these reasons are also why the plan may be too ambitious. In California, for instance, grizzlies would presumably be reintroduced to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
But the grizzlies wouldn’t be contiguous with any other population. And although common perception is that bears prefer a high-country forest habitat, a grizzly’s range, which is far and wide, also includes marshes, meadows, foothills, and grasslands, the exact places that have also been most conducive over the past century to human settlement, meaning that human-bear encounters would be inevitable.
And why would a grizzly bear want to eat marmots and bugs in the national parks when it could avail itself to the smorgasbord of dairies, feedlots, and poultry farms throughout the San Joaquin Valley? There wouldn’t be a fence delineating the bears’ range, and they can’t read signs.
NPS to study North Cascades feasibility— In August, the National Park Service, in cooperation with USFWS and the U.S. Forest Service, announced they would begin efforts to boost the number of grizzlies in the North Cascades region (northern Washington / British Columbia, Canada) – the only grizzlies in the continental U.S. living outside the Rocky Mountains — by developing an Environmental Impact Statement to decide one of three alternatives: (1) to pursue no action, (2) to boost the population naturally, or (3) to transplant bears from elsewhere. It is estimated that there are less than 20 grizzlies left in that region; by some accounts there might be just two bears remaining.
It is expected that the EIS process will take three years. During that time, there is bound to be some public pushback.
To bear or not to bear— Humans, historically, don’t appreciate being knocked off the top rung of the food chain. To that end, California, the state that reveres the great bear on its proverbial letterhead will most likely oppose plans to admit grizzly bears as permanent residents.