Bear Series, Part Three: The Return of the California Grizzly

November 05, 2014 Posted by: PB - Park Ranger (Yosemite Valley)
As a park ranger I am often asked by visitors from around the world what species of bear currently lives in Yosemite. People are often surprised when I tell them that only the American black bear (Ursus americanus) lives here now. What often confuses visitors at Yosemite is that the bears they see here will most likely not be pure black but a mottled brown. Indeed, 90% of them will be brown, while in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern US only perhaps 1% will be brown. In fact, black bears may be black, brown, cinnamon, blonde or kermode (a white phase that is unrelated to albinism). There are more American black bears in North America than the other seven species of bear combined (there are perhaps nearly 750,000 black bears on the continent, of which 300 to 500 are estimated to live within the boundaries of Yosemite). 

However, I am quick to point out to visitors that Yosemite was indeed once also home to the brown bear (Ursus arctos), which was often called the California grizzly. For the sake of simplicity and recognition I'll refer to the brown bear of California as a grizzly bear, even though what dwelled here may indeed have been a separate sub-species of brown bear that would not truly carry the scientific name of the grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis (currently there are believed to be three extant subspecies of brown bear in North America and the term grizzly bear sometimes refers to them all or to only one subspecies in particular), but would have been known as Ursus arctos californicus

Indeed, the name Yosemite itself might derive its origin from the American Indian Miwok word "uzamati," which referred to the grizzly bear. Accordingly, perhaps some of the very first European Americans to actually see Yosemite Valley in October 1849 did so because they were following the tracks of a grizzly they were hunting. 

Grizzly bear

The grizzly of California was truly a massive animal, weighing anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 pounds. The mild Mediterranean climate throughout much of California fostered a great environment for these bears in the Central Valley and along the coast and because these bears did not need to hibernate (bears hibernate based on food availability), they were indeed huge. However, these rich fertile lands inhabited by grizzlies were those also most desired by farmers and ranchers so grizzlies were quickly driven out of their preferred environment. Being at the top of the food chain, grizzlies often stood their ground against human intruders and so were more easy shot, rather than the more cautious black bears, which tend to flee from humans, which may have aided in their continued survival. Grizzlies were also roped by vaqueros for sport in bull-baiting exhibitions, wherein a chained bear would be pitted in a battle for survival against a bull. Allegedly after witnessing one such confrontation, Horace Greeley, the famous 19th century newspaper editor from New York City, coined the bear and bull market terminology still in use on Wall Street. 

As such, loss of habitat and unregulated hunting resulted in the rapid decline of the grizzly. It would stand to reason that they would have found sanctuary by the 1890s in the recently established national parks of Yosemite and Sequoia. During this period however, when the US Army managed Yosemite from 1891 to 1916, the Superintendent, an army major, noted in the 1906 Superintendent's Report that Yosemite Valley was "a death trap to all game that was unfortunate to enter it." Indeed bear traps were found within the Valley near one of the hotels. These parks were designated for people to recreate in, not as wildlife sanctuaries. Indeed sometimes even wildlife was actually viewed as an impediment to safe recreation. How many people might today have second thoughts about taking a hike in Yosemite if grizzlies still roamed here? 

Many park visitors were afraid of bears (black bears and grizzly bears) and there was a concerted effort to keep them out of the Valley permanently. This disregard for wildlife was a reflection of the values of the late 19th and early 20th centuries wherein wild animals, outside their commercial exploitation, was not considered especially valuable. Sadly, the last California grizzly (of which there were perhaps once 10,000) was killed in Yosemite in 1895, five years after Yosemite was declared a national park, and the last one killed in the state was in 1922 near Sequoia National Park. No grizzly bears have been sighted in California since 1924. Being one of the slowest reproducing land mammals in North America, the grizzly did not receive legal protection until 1975 under the Endangered Species Act after 37 separate grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states had been reduced to only five over the course of 50 years. Currently grizzlies reside within 4% of their historic range in the lower part of the US. Now if you want to see a grizzly at a national park outside of Alaska, the places to go are Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. 

Nonetheless, even though it is extirpated, the grizzly still plays a big part in the culture of California. The grizzly is on the state flag of California (modelled after Monarch, a wild bear captured and displayed at Golden Gate Park, now stuffed at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, who died in 1911), is still the state mammal of California, and of course lends itself to graciously be the mascot of many school's sports teams (UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, UCLA, nearby Merced High School, etc.), not to mention geographic place names (Grizzly Peak in Berkeley). Over the years there has been an interest in potentially re-introducing grizzlies back into California, just as elk, bison, and wolves have been intentionally reintroduced to areas they were previously extirpated from. However, as tempting as that sounds, prime grizzly habitat in California was the coast and the central valley, which are very populated today and retain only fragments of original or appropriate habitat. Could bears be reintroduced to these areas? Certainly, but those who live at these prime locations would also have to get behind the idea of reintroduction, since for them grizzlies would not be something "out in the wild" but in their own backyards. 

As a park ranger I have lived in close proximity to many predatory animals over the years, including mountain lions, alligators, wolves, and even grizzlies at Yellowstone National Park. I know that living in grizzly country requires certain changes in one's personal behavior so as to decrease the chance of a negative bear encounter. As a result I was extra vigilant when I hiked (naturally carrying bear spray when I did) and avoided trail running or running after dark altogether. Rarely did I ever encounter a grizzly while on foot and when I did the bears did their best to avoid me. With that being said there were several instances of grizzly sows attacking hikers ostensibly to protect their offspring while I worked at Yellowstone, but in those instances (as in the majority of grizzly bear attacks) the victims were ambulatory after the attack and suffered relatively minor injuries. However, the chance to observe an apex predator in the wild more than made up for the personal habits I had to alter. Again, I ask, could grizzly bears be reintroduced to areas in California? What do you think?  

Yosemite Valley, Nature Scene, Yosemite's Legacy




18 Comments Comments icon

  1. October 22, 2016 at 10:59
     

    Your article and information is inspirational. Yes, I believe Re introducing grizzlies is an important step for California. Here in these foothills I have photographed, with my trail camera huge bears that I find hard to believe are black bears. Well over 500 pounds, and not causing any problems in Paradise or surrounding communities. It is very remote here with thousands of acres uninhabited which could support grizzlies. A different species than our original as it is extinct. I say yes!

     
  2. July 09, 2016 at 05:01
     

    They'd definitely have to be reintroduced in a location where the risk of encountering civilization is minimal. Even Yosemite might be too risky; there's lots of people and the level of development would make it hard to optimize for grizzlies (IIRC, trashcans safe against black bears aren't always safe against grizzlies, and vice versa. Could be wrong), not to mention the rugged landscape. Apparently CA grizzlies liked wide open, smooth places (e.g places now occupied by farmland), and a reluctance to retreat into the rugged woods (unlike the versatile black bear) might have facilitated their extinction. There'd really have to be a lot of planning done, even more than wolves.

     
  3. July 09, 2016 at 05:01
     

    They'd definitely have to be reintroduced in a location where the risk of encountering civilization is minimal. Even Yosemite might be too risky; there's lots of people and the level of development would make it hard to optimize for grizzlies (IIRC, trashcans safe against black bears aren't always safe against grizzlies, and vice versa. Could be wrong), not to mention the rugged landscape. Apparently CA grizzlies liked wide open, smooth places (e.g places now occupied by farmland), and a reluctance to retreat into the rugged woods (unlike the versatile black bear) might have facilitated their extinction. There'd really have to be a lot of planning done, even more than wolves.

     
  4. July 09, 2016 at 05:01
     

    They'd definitely have to be reintroduced in a location where the risk of encountering civilization is minimal. Even Yosemite might be too risky; there's lots of people and the level of development would make it hard to optimize for grizzlies (IIRC, trashcans safe against black bears aren't always safe against grizzlies, and vice versa. Could be wrong), not to mention the rugged landscape. Apparently CA grizzlies liked wide open, smooth places (e.g places now occupied by farmland), and a reluctance to retreat into the rugged woods (unlike the versatile black bear) might have facilitated their extinction. There'd really have to be a lot of planning done, even more than wolves.

     
  5. July 09, 2016 at 05:00
     

    They'd definitely have to be reintroduced in a location where the risk of encountering civilization is minimal. Even Yosemite might be too risky; there's lots of people and the level of development would make it hard to optimize for grizzlies (IIRC, trashcans safe against black bears aren't always safe against grizzlies, and vice versa. Could be wrong), not to mention the rugged landscape. Apparently CA grizzlies liked wide open, smooth places (e.g places now occupied by farmland), and a reluctance to retreat into the rugged woods (unlike the versatile black bear) might have facilitated their extinction. There'd really have to be a lot of planning done, even more than wolves.

     
  6. June 28, 2016 at 10:45
     

    Zack - I'd love to see pics of your "brown" bear. I've seen some big cinnamon bears around the Tahoe Basin, as well as El Dorado NF. Being a valley resident, it's difficult to see people in the ag areas accepting reintroduction of grizzlies or wolves. I'm curious whether the size of the California Grizzly was attributable to the subspecies or the abundance of food. 1,110-2,000 lbs makes it significantly larger than any Yellowstone/Glacier/Grand Teton grizzly, and even larger than most Alaskan brown bears. I think the Department of the Interior could easily justify reintroduction in all national parks, forests, wildlife reserves, and recreation areas, across their historical range, with some notable exceptions, such as Golden Gate, which would be disastrous. I think reintroduction could help to redistribute tourism to places like Yellowstone, which is currently inundated with people from all over the world, many of whom come to see the grizzlies and wolves.

     
  7. June 28, 2016 at 10:45
     

    Zack - I'd love to see pics of your "brown" bear. I've seen some big cinnamon bears around the Tahoe Basin, as well as El Dorado NF. Being a valley resident, it's difficult to see people in the ag areas accepting reintroduction of grizzlies or wolves. I'm curious whether the size of the California Grizzly was attributable to the subspecies or the abundance of food. 1,110-2,000 lbs makes it significantly larger than any Yellowstone/Glacier/Grand Teton grizzly, and even larger than most Alaskan brown bears. I think the Department of the Interior could easily justify reintroduction in all national parks, forests, wildlife reserves, and recreation areas, across their historical range, with some notable exceptions, such as Golden Gate, which would be disastrous. I think reintroduction could help to redistribute tourism to places like Yellowstone, which is currently inundated with people from all over the world, many of whom come to see the grizzlies and wolves.

     
  8. June 26, 2016 at 07:28
     

    Zack - I'd love to see it! Is there a way I can contact you?

     
  9. June 20, 2016 at 09:43
     

    I was out running today just before sundown when I came across a monster on the road! It was brown in color but appeared way larger then any black bear I've seen (grew up in Minnesota). I have pictures and can send them if anyone is interested.

     
  10. Joe
    March 06, 2016 at 12:08
     

    Just do it! No doubt about it. Having grown up in Mendocino County and meandered through the state, there is plenty of space for the Grizzly. It is wonderful to know that you might see one when wandering out in "them thar" woods. From Lake County on up and wrapping around the Mt. Shasta area, and then all the way down the Sierras through its terminus roughly--plenty of space for this majestic animal. That would be a positive move. Let's go for it.

     
  11. January 24, 2016 at 05:44
     

    lel

     
  12. October 20, 2015 at 01:04
     

    Great informational piece. I absolutely think the Grizzly should be reintroduced. Granted, we all know the California Grizzly subspecies is extinct, the current Grizzly population is still threatened and it would be additional area for it to (hopefully) increase its numbers and therefore chance of survival for future generations. The Grizzly was here long before cattle roamed the hillsides and while a potential conflict with cattle exists, in reality, it has not proven to be a problem in Grizzly populated areas.

     
  13. August 24, 2015 at 05:24
     

    What a great piece of history. I learned valuable info that I sure never learned in school. I think it's time for another journey to Yosemite.

     
  14. August 12, 2015 at 05:08
     

    I think reintroducing grizzly bears to california would be a move in the right direction for the environment, wildlife, and even people. Grizzles were a part of the ecosystem in california for much longer than they have been extinct, which lends me to believe they would fit back in, and even improve the ecosystem. getting these native predators back (grizzles, wolves) will add the balance back improving rivers, forests and to make a long story short, the environment. As far as people are concerned, anything thats good for nature is good for us. Although it would take time to adjust, I think time we will have. Over the years after reintroduction the population will slowly rise, along with peoples awareness and behaviors necessary to coexist. Although so much habitat is now farm land, there is still many ideal places that are remote and wild with the right ingredients needed. Theres nothing wrong with people learning how to fit in with native wildlife and being aware of your surroundings. Most people have grown so accustom to unnatural behaviors like not paying attention to the science behind nature and all that supports life, but instead separating ourselves and creating excuses for why society should prevail over nature. Society can blind us from the fundamental survival skills that once kept us alive like being aware of surrounding wildlife and potential hazards. We can all coexist but we must evolve our relationship with nature. Being a passionate fishermen and backpack and growing up in remote northern california, i would love to see grizzly bears once again roam these lands.

     
  15. April 03, 2015 at 06:18
     

    Love the idea. Let's get it done.

     
  16. January 27, 2015 at 07:19
     

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge of Grizzly Bears and their history. California must have been sublime for them only 300 years ago...

     
  17. January 17, 2015 at 10:09
     

    I do not believe that reintroduction of is possible, because REAL California Grizzly Bears no longer exist. They were a specific sub-specie that is identified mainly by their "Shovel-Nose," which was use for rooting tubers and roots in the wild. That is not to say that is all they ate, but this design was well suited to many mountain areas where they roamed. Along with stories by Theodor Hittle, it is noted that they roamed all over California's Coast, both North and South, as well as the Sierra Mountains. But, now the Cal Grizzly Ranges are now mostly cattle areas, which would be in conflict. The REAL Grizzly Adams started hunt them for food for Miners, then for pelts and the young, which he shipped of to zoos back east. He even had one or two with Barnum's Museum. The more pressing concern now, is to stop the habitat destruction of the last of the California Desert Tortious, which is being threatened by Wind and SolarThermal Farms in the Deserts.

     
  18. December 15, 2014 at 11:27
     

    Dear PB- Thank you for putting so much time and energy into trying to educate people about bears in Yosemite, and bears in general. Please keep posting your comments about bears and also what other subjects come to mind concerning the park. You probably have more readers than you think. Good tidings to you, and the effort you are making to bring understanding.

     
 
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Last updated: November 5, 2014

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