Last updated: November 5, 2014
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.
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?