An image of a grizzly bear adorns the California state flag, although the species hasn’t been seen in the state since 1924. The irony of a state symbol that can no longer be found locally is emblematic of the environmental decline suffered nationwide because there are many place names (Panther Creek, Elk Knob, Pigeon Mountain, etc.) all across the country named after animals long absent from that particular region. Biologists believe existing wilderness in California could support a population of 600 grizzly bears, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejects proposals to reintroduce them.
Though a grizzly bear is on the California state flag, authorities refuse to allow reintroduction of the species to the state, since its extinction there circa 1924.
“Thieving Grizzlies in a California Wheat Field” by Albert Pennoyer.
Grizzly bears, the same species as the Eurasian and Alaskan brown bear, crossed the Bering Land Bridge ~50,000 years ago. Fossil and genetic evidence suggests they colonized North America before the Last Glacial Maximum when glaciers expanded and blocked the route between what today is Alaska and the rest of the continent. Grizzly bear subfossils dating to the late Pleistocene have been found as far east as Kentucky, Ohio, Ontario, and Quebec; but the range of this species has retracted westward since the end of the Pleistocene. Grizzly bears probably roamed California for 40,000 years before their extirpation there. They did survive the end Pleistocene extinctions that terminated the existence of so many other species of megafauna. I believe they survived this extinction because unlike American species they had co-evolved with low populations of primitive humans for over a million years. This gave them time to evolve 3 adaptations that helped them survive alongside people for millennia: a) they learned to avoid people when possible, b) but females with cubs attack humans that they do come into close contact with, and c) they hibernate during severe winters when humans are more likely to take the risk of hunting a large dangerous animal because of desperation for food. When hibernating they are out of sight and more difficult to find hidden away in dens.
The abundance of such a large iconic animal in California must have been reminiscent of many scenes that Paleo-Indians witnessed during the Pleistocene. Most of California provided ideal habitat for grizzly bears, and they occurred everywhere in the state with the exception of the desert. Grizzly bears like mostly open environments with some trees, while black bears ( Ursus americanus ) prefer mostly forested environments with some meadows. Grizzly bears excluded black bears from the valleys, though their ranges overlapped in the more forested mountains. Southern California valleys and the coastal region of northern California hosted grassy oak savannahs and brush oak chaparrals where grizzlies could feast on 4 foot tall clover and acorns that fell from over 5 different species of oak. Along the coast they scavenged beached whales and other marine life.
Large meadows of 4 foot tall rose clover (Trifolium hirtum) were an important food source for California grizzlies.
Blue oak savannah in California. Grizzlies loved to forage for grass and acorns in this environment.
Beached whales and other marine life were an important source of food for California grizzly bears.
Here is a passage from the below referenced book that gives an account of how common grizzly bears were during European colonization of the region.
“George Yount was among the first American pioneers in California, arriving in February, 1831. Of grizzlies in the Napa Valley (where the town Yountville carries his name) he said ‘they were every where–upon the plains, in the valleys, and on the mountains…so that I have often killed as many as five or six in one day, and it was not unusual to see fifty of sixty within twenty-four hours.’ When Don Agustin Janssens rode between San Marcos and Santa Ynez in 1834 he said, ‘All the way we saw bears and it was winter and the acorns were dropping.’ John Bidwell, in the Sacramento Valley in 1841, saw sixteen in one drove and said that ‘grizzly bear were almost an hourly sight, in the vicinity of streams, and it was not uncommon to see thirty or forty a day.’ Even in Humboldt County, where much land is forested and unfavorable for the species, there is early mention of nine seen in one place, and again of ’40 bears in sight at once from a high point in the Mattole country,’ where a great extent of open land could be seen; all or most of these presumably were grizzlies, since black bears then were uncommon.”
One county of California-San Luis Obispo– was known as the “Valley of the Bears.” Bear jerky from bears killed in this valley saved the first Spanish settlement in California at Monterey Bay when the settlers were in danger of starvation in 1770.
Grizzly populations temporarily increased in California from 1800-1860, thanks to the large Mexican ranches and their enormous herds of livestock. Grizzlies directly hunted some and scavenged others that suffered natural deaths. Grizzlies often lured curious cattle to them by lying on their backs with their paws waving in the air. They pounced on cows venturing too close. During droughts ranchers shot large numbers of cattle, horses, and sheep to prevent overgrazing, and grizzlies exploited this additional source of easy protein. (Severe droughts strike California every decade. These droughts are likely unrelated to anthropogenic global warming.) The bears also foraged butchering grounds.
The Mexican ranchers didn’t always have good quality firearms, so they killed grizzlies with lassoes. A group of men on horseback would lasso the bear and drag, strangle, or stress the animal to death. It took great skill for both man and horse to lasso a grizzly, and it was very dangerous. A grizzly might shake loose and charge. In some cases a grizzly would seize the rope and pull the horse and rider toward it paw over paw. If the rope was tied to the bridle, this could be disastrous for the horse and man.
Rancheros lassoing a grizzly bear. The early Spanish settlers in California often didn’t have good rifles, so they lassoed grizzlies, dragging or strangling them to death. This took great skill but was extremely cruel.
Staged fights between bears and bulls were a popular “sport” in California during the 19th century. Every major town had a bear-bull fight on every holiday. The bear and bull were attached to each other with a 20 yard long leather strap, and they fought until 1 or both suffered fatal injuries. The Mexican ranchers captured powerful large bears, so when Mexico owned California the bears usually won these cruel contests. But when the U.S. gained control of the state, most of the bears supplied for these contests were small individuals captured in traps by miners, and the bulls usually won. In 1 contest a bear was pitted against a cougar. Surprisingly, the much smaller cat killed the bear. A majority of Americans rejected this Spanish/Mexican custom, and local governments began passing ordinances against these spectacles, but they didn’t completely stop until grizzlies were extirpated here.
Between 1850-1890 the population of humans in California increased from 92,597 to 1,213,390. This doomed California grizzlies. Americans brought superior firearms capable of more efficient killing, and there were just too many conflicts between people and grizzlies. The valleys where grizzlies thrived were also prime agricultural lands. Farmers and ranchers would not tolerate grizzlies eating their crops and livestock. City people did not want grizzlies busting into their homes to consume the contents of their cupboards. Miners were afraid of getting mauled when they carried their pouches of gold dust to the nearest bar or brothel. California grizzlies were ruthlessly hunted until about 1924 when there were none left in the state.
Storer, Tracy and Lloyd Tevis
University of California Press 1955