Bring Back the California Grizzly


“This is an animal that cannot compromise or adjust its way of life to ours. Could not by its very nature, could not even if we allowed it the opportunity, which we did not. For the grizzly bear, there is no freedom but that of unbounded space, no life except its own. Without meekness, without a sign of humility, it has refused to accept our idea of what the world should be like. If we succeed in preserving the wild remnant that still survives, the glory will rest primarily on this bear whose stubborn vigor has kept it alive in the face of increasing and seemingly hopeless odds.”

Adapted from Robert Porter Allen U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan” 1982

In 1922, the last California grizzly bear was shot. It survives today only on our state flag.

The Sierran national parks were created just a few years too late to save the grizzly in California, unlike Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks in Wyoming and Montana which safeguard the last Rocky Mountain grizzlies. There were reports of a female grizzly with a cub sighted in what is now Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in 1924 Ð the fate of the two is unknown.

In recent years, with expanding public awareness of wildlife issues and the plight of endangered species, California has been able to restore some species once on the verge of extinction. These include the tule elk, Nelson bighorn sheep in the desert, pronghorn, southern sea otter, and others. Other recovery efforts are underway for species now listed as endangered or threatened by the state and federal governments. With improved public sympathy for wildlife, we have a chance to bring the California grizzly back to our state.

The biological and political objections are formidable. But I strongly support the restoration of this wild symbol of our state. Reintroducing the grizzly is a bold affirmation of our deep care for wild nature and our willingness to defend our wildlife heritage.

About the Grizzly

The distribution of the Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos) in North America has shrunk considerably in the past years due to predator control, unregulated hunting, and habitat loss. Today, grizzly populations in the lower 48 states are found only in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Washington, with significant populations largely confined to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (which is anchored by Glacier National Park). Healthy populations of the grizzly still reside in Western Canada and Alaska.

In California, the grizzly once inhabited most of the state, except for the sparse desert areas of eastern Modoc and Lassen Counties and the California desert. Much of the grizzly range overlapped the mountain forest range of the black bear (Euarctos americanus), but also included large areas of grassland, chaparral, and oak woodlands.

Grizzlies dominate the habitats they live in. They tend to be solitary, except for mothers with dependent cubs and for the brief mating period.

Drs. Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis, in their excellent work The California Grizzly (1955), felt that the California grizzly was not only one of the largest grizzly subspecies (based on skull measurements and other clues) in the lower 48 states, but also that is was largely a lowland species, inhabiting the vast areas of brush that dominate California’s coastal hills and Sierran foothills. (This would complicate reintroduction efforts, as these lowland areas are heavily used by people.)

The grizzly is largely a vegetarian, taking in a wide range of plant matter, but also eating meat when available, chiefly as carrion. A grizzly will occasionally kill animals for food when available, including squirrels, fawns, livestock, reptiles, and amphibians. Grasses, berries, nuts and acorns, roots, clover, and other plants are consumed in large quantities. As Storer and Tevis note, “It ate almost anything and everything that was available.”

Grizzlies do den in the winter, although in California’s milder climate, they may have been active year-round in lower elevations. California’s bear population may have bred and given birth to cubs on a year-round basis, although in Yellowstone and other areas with more pronounced seasons, breeding is generally done in the summer, with the female giving birth to young in the winter den in January.

Grizzlies are pugnacious. Dr. Stephen Herrero, in his definitive 1985 book Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, identifies at least four circumstances when grizzlies attack people: mothers defending their cubs; bears surprised by people at close range; bears habituated to humans, especially through eating food in campgrounds, at cabins, or in rural garbage dumps; and bears who consider humans as a possible food source.

All four causes of bear attacks can be avoided. The National Park Service in the United States and the provincial parks in Canada have active programs of educating park visitors, controlling food and garbage around bear habitat, and closure of areas to public use when aggressive bear activity is noted.

How can we return grizzlies to California? I propose a feasibility study to answer four basic issues:

Determine where grizzly bears might be reintroduced in California. Much of the original habitat of the grizzly has been converted to human use, such as agriculture and housing. While there are many wilderness areas, national forests, and national parks in California that have considerable protected acreage, much of this land may not be suitable for grizzlies. Even in parks and forest areas, human use for livestock grazing, recreation, and habitation may conflict with grizzly reintroduction. Enough habitat is needed to maintain a viable population of grizzlies Ð even states like Montana and Wyoming are hard-pressed to maintain so much open space, free of conflicts. Consultation should include federal land agencies such as the National Park Service and Forest Service, along with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over grizzlies under the national Endangered Species Act.

Determine where populations of grizzly bears might be located that can be transplanted to California. The California grizzly subspecies is extinct; all remaining grizzly populations in the lower 48 states are threatened with extinction. Alaska and Canada still have viable populations of grizzly. The British Columbia population is probably the closest genetic match with California grizzlies that still survives in large numbers. Another possible source for grizzlies for reintroduction would be from zoos, either through existing inventories (which are undoubtedly limited and habituated to humans and captivity) or through development of a captive breeding program with intent to reintroduce the bears to the wild on a long-term basis.

Determine policies and procedures to reduce potential conflicts between grizzlies, people, and livestock. As noted above, grizzlies will, on occasion, attack people and livestock. Such attacks can be avoided through a variety of public education programs, improved animal husbandry, and bear management. But these issues are likely to be politically “hot;” many people object to the presence of mountain lions in California, which also rarely attacks livestock and people. Such rare occurrences are often blown out of proportion to the facts. The California Department of Fish and Game and federal agencies will also have to contend with public fears and misinformation about reintroduction. Preparation of a public education program to address such concerns is a very important aspect of a reintroduction program.

Determine estimated costs of a reintroduction program. The state Department of Fish and Game is financially strapped for a variety of historical reasons (e.g. dependence on sportsmen’s fees, which are declining) and recent reasons (e.g. the recession cutting into revenues and cutbacks in state General Fund appropriations for the Department). At the same time, costs of a grizzly bear reintroduction program would be low compared to other government programs, and may even be covered, at least in part, through voluntary contributions from wildlife enthusiasts.

“In the early 50’s, I, myself saw the grizzlies feeding together in numbers under the trees, far up the Sacramento Valley, as tranquilly as a flock of sheep. A serene, dignified and very decent old beast was the full-grown grizzly as Fremont and others found him here at home. This king of the continent, who is quietly abdicating his throne, has never been understood. The grizzly was not only every inch a king, but he had, in his undisputed dominion, a pretty fair sense of justice. He was never a roaring lion. He was never a man-eater. He is indebted for his character for ferocity almost entirely to tradition, but, in some degree, to the female bear when seeking to protect her young … The grizzly went out as the American rifle came in …” Ð Joaquin Miller True Bear Stories (1900)

In addition to the obvious conservation benefit of restoring a lost species to California’s fauna, there are other benefits to restoring grizzlies.

The grizzly is at the top of the food chain. As such, it has tremendous impact on the ecosystems in which it resides. By scavenging carcasses, preying on injured and sick animals, and by digging and rooting about for food, they help recycle important nutrients through the food chain. The grizzly has been missing from the California ecosystem for 70 years; its return would restore a piece of the fabric of nature.

There are also practical benefits. Tourism is the second largest industry in California, bringing in an estimated $54 billion in direct spending in 1991 and employing an estimated 773,000 people in the state. The grizzly is a major draw for visitors to Yellowstone National Park and other areas where it lives today. The excitement of a successful reintroduction program in California can translate into hard cash in attracting visitors, nature lovers, photographers, and naturalists.

In addition, a successful reintroduction effort in California for the grizzly will have an impact throughout the world. Many countries are struggling to retain their precious wildlife in the face of development pressures, poaching, and human population growth. California can once again lead the way by demonstrating successful co-existence with our California state symbol.

However, it is not clear that enough protected land exists in California to establish a viable population of grizzly bears. Much of this issue depends on political issues, such as can livestock owners coexist with grizzlies on National Forest lands.

It is also unclear if enough grizzlies can be obtained from either wild or captive populations to establish a population in California.

Establishing a viable population of grizzly bears, which is a wide-ranging omnivore, or similar effort has never yet been tried before. The closest experience is the re-establishment of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, an experiment which is still ongoing. A grizzly reintroduction to Idaho wilderness is in the advanced planning stages.

The effects of reintroducing the grizzlies on other wildlife should also be assessed. There is some evidence, for example, that the black bear has increased its range in California in historic times due to the extinction of the grizzly. Impacts of a grizzly reintroduction on other predators and scavengers should also be considered.

“From the exceeding abundance of grizzly tracks, it was but natural to suppose that we might be visited in the night, so we slept “conveniently” near an easy tree to climb and built a bright fire. But I bet Hoffmann a keg of beer, to be drunk at the first place where it could be got, that we would neither hear nor see a bear in the night …

“But our sound sleep won for me the beer, for we found large bear tracks within a hundred feet, or less, of us in the morning Ð he had passed during the night. It was light moon, when bears love most to roam, but all hunters unite in saying that it is the rarest thing in the world for a grizzly to seriously disturb a sleeping man. I have never heard of a man being thus attacked. They often come up and smell the man, but if he lies perfectly quiet he will not be molested. The difficulty is, to lie quiet while an animal more ferocious than the lion and stronger than the strongest ox is thus examining you. But our friend that night took no such liberties. He apparently passed down the canyon, stopped and turned around when near us, then passed on.”

William H. Brewer Up and Down California in 1860-1864

Since grizzlies have a reputation for attacking livestock, it is likely that organized agriculture will be opposed to a reintroduction program. Possible resolutions include:

Establishing a livestock/grizzly management plan before reintroduction to address and prevent such incidents; Helping livestock owners protect livestock from grizzlies, such as through the use of outdoor lighting, guard dogs, and grizzly-proof pens; Transplanting of problem bears to other localities; Killing of problem bears when no other resolution is possible; and Reimbursement of ranchers for lost livestock.

Nationally, the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife has been paying Montana ranchers for livestock losses caused by a pack of wolves that recently established themselves in the northern part of that state.

Grizzly attacks on humans are rare. Herrero’s research covered attacks in the United States and Canada national park system, where most attacks occur. >From 1900 to 1980, he documented 165 human injuries from 143 incidents; he estimates perhaps as many incidents occurred outside the national parks during the same period. Fifty percent of injuries were major, requiring hospitalization for more than 24 hours, and 19 deaths occurred.

While such injuries and attacks by grizzlies receive headlines, they need to be kept in perspective. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control, for example, report that domestic dogs kill 18 to 20 people every year in the United States. From 1975 to 1984, there were 604 hunting accidents in California, several of them fatal.

Nonetheless, people often respond to fear rather than facts. In Yellowstone National Park, proposals to reintroduce wolves were first greeted by concerns from hiking and backpacking organizations, although there is only one authenticated case of a wolf attacking a human in the wild in North America. Subsequent public education efforts at the park have resulted in strong public support for wolf reintroduction, although the powerful livestock industry still actively opposes the effort.

There was strong public opposition voiced to proposals by biologists of the University of California, Berkeley, to releasing coyotes on Angel Island State Park in San Francisco Bay to control deer numbers. Public fears about grizzlies need to be addressed up front.

Some sportsmen1s organizations may well be opposed. While it would appear to be in their interest to support reintroduction of grizzly bears, both to support a healthy ecosystem and for potential future bear hunting, some sportsmen1s groups in California still cling to outmoded ideas about wildlife issues. Many still insist that mountain lions harm deer herds in California, contrary to any evidence. Reintroduction of grizzly bears may be seen as another predator competing with sportsmen for deer, or may be seen as some vague attempt by “the anti-hunters” to further interfere with hunters in California. Similarly, commodity producers, such as logging and mining companies, may oppose grizzly reintroduction for fear of restrictions on their activities on public and private lands needed for bear habitat.

“Toiling in the treadmills of life we hide from the lessons of Nature. We gaze morbidly through civilized fog upon our beautiful world clad with seamless beauty, and see ferocious beasts and wastes and deserts. But savage deserts and beasts and storms are expressions of God1s power inseparably companioned by love. Civilized man chokes his soul … We deprecate bears.

“But grandly they blend with their native mountains. They roam the sandy slopes on lily meads, through polished glaciers and chaparral, living upon red berries and gooseberries, little caring for rain or snow … Magnificent bears of the Sierra are worthy of their magnificent homes. They are not companions of men, but children of God, and His charity is broad enough for bears. They are objects of His tender keeping …

“Bears are made of the same dust as we, and breathe the same winds and drink of the same waters. A bear1s days are warmed by the same sun, his dwellings are overdomed by the same blue sky, and his life turns and ebbs with heart-pulsings like ours, and was poured from the same First Fountain. And whether he at last goes to our stingy heaven or no, he has terrestrial immortality. His life is not long, not short, knows no beginning, no ending. To him life unstinted, unplanned, is above the accidents of time, and his years, markless and boundless, equal Eternity.

“God bless Yosemite bears.”

John Muir, Thoughts upon Finding a Dead Yosemite Bear ” (1871), from John of the Mountains, edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe

The grizzly can come back to California, if we will let it. The major obstacles are political in nature, surely a poor excuse for inaction in the grand scheme of things. The California state legislature and the federal and state wildlife and land agencies can take a remarkable and historic step by developing a feasibility study for a reintroduction of grizzly bears into California.

Help bring back the California grizzly!

Mark Palmer is a wildlife activist who lives in Davis, California. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book Wildlife Alive: A Conservationist in California. This article originally appeared on Faultine: the Journal of the California Environment.


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