For thousands of years, grizzly bears roamed California from the far north to what is now the Mexican border.
Often 8 feet tall when standing, weighing a thousand pounds or more, they were golden brown, with a pronounced shoulder hump, and usually lived 20 to 30 years. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were an estimated 10,000 in the state.
To Teddy Roosevelt, the grizzly was a “great shaggy mountain king,” as he wrote in The Times in 1892. For early California ranchers and sheep farmers, grizzly bears were a persistent threat to livestock. For native people, they were often viewed with religious reverence.
Nicholas Goldberg was editor of the editorial page for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.
Above all, the bears were a symbol of the wild, untamed nature, which some Californians admired and others tried to conquer.
And conquer they did. Less than 75 years after the state took office, the California grizzly, which was considered a threat to western expansion and human settlement, had disappeared — hunted, captured, poisoned, shot.
The last recorded murder of a wild grizzly in California was in August 1922, probably in Tulare or Fresno County, in the Southern Sierra. That was 100 years ago this month.
A few years later, another grizzly was sighted near Sequoia National Park before wandering off. That was the last seen in the state.
Today, grizzlies in the Lower 48 are restricted to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Their population dropped from 50,000 to about 1,500 before being declared endangered in 1975. Now there are about 2,000.
In their California heyday, grizzly bears – Ursus arctos horribilis — stretched freely through the Santa Monica Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, along the coast of Santa Barbara and throughout the state. Despite their reputation as ferocious predators, which they certainly could be, they were normally “fruit eaters and insect eaters,” as Roosevelt put it in The Times. They screamed for insects, berries and fruit. They also ate fish from the rivers and collected whale carcasses from the coast.
And yes, they had a penchant for livestock if they could get their paws on it.
For Allen Kelly, who wrote a classic 1903 book on the subject, the grizzly bear “has a far worse reputation than it deserves, as an excuse for his persecution and a justification for his killers.”
Before California grizzlies were killed, The Times pages were full of stories of their cruelty. The newspaper praised the “single-shot grizzly bear king,” Chester Ellsworth of Long Beach, who had killed 30, each with just one shot from his Winchester 405. There were articles about the ferocious bear-and-bullfights with which people amused themselves and of wildlife encounters. A typical story depicted a “thrilling battle with giant grizzly bears,” glorifying the “skill, daring and accuracy” required to hunt them. (Grizzly bears can run as fast as 35 miles per hour for short distances.)
They were murdered in the then wild wilderness of Laurel Canyon and in the Cahuenga Pass near where the Hollywood Bowl is now.
Today it seems strange and offensive that the bear doesn’t just adorn the state flag – California law says it must be “a brown grizzly bear walking to the left with all four paws on a green lawn, head and eye slightly turned to the observer” – but is also the official state animal, which was approved in 1953 by the legislature and the governor.
In other words, the state elevated the California grizzly to a place of honor just three decades after completely wiping it out. After tormenting the animals with bull-and-bear fights, lassoing them, keeping them in cages, exhibiting them, hunting and poisoning them, the state gave the grizzly the same position of symbolic distinction as the California redwood, called the state tree.
Sometimes you have to marvel at the brutality of people, at the tolerance for irony and cognitive dissonance.
For my part, when I read about the treatment of the grizzly by the European settlers of California, I had to remember the way they treated the native people they encountered.
“It was all part of the same project — a major expropriation,” said Peter Alagona, a professor of environmental science at UC Santa Barbara and founder of the California Grizzly Research Network. “It was made very clear that the land needed to be cleared of animals such as grizzly bears that would threaten businesses and ranches — as well as indigenous people.”
In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate new recovery zones for grizzly bears in California and consider reintroducing the bears to the California ecosystem.
The agency rejected the petition, but a lawsuit is still pending. It would mean bringing in grizzly bears from elsewhere, like Montana, and trying to build a sustainable population here.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a highly controversial idea: to bring back a wild animal that’s the subject of such terrifying memories to a state of 39 million people, 10 times the population in 1922.
“Grizzly bears are incredibly majestic and inspiring animals,” said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Re-introducing it would correct a historic mistake.”
Greenwald notes that in many European countries (and in less populated parts of the western US), bears, or similar ones, live in relatively close contact with humans and conflicts are very limited.
Still, it seems unlikely to me that this will happen, especially at a time when black bears are already being driven from their habitats by wildfires and stumbling onto highways where they are being killed in record numbers.
But what’s the harm in studying what it takes to establish a population, and finding out where the bears might come from and what reasonable reintroduction sites might be?
“In general, I think people really like bears,” Alagona said. “They are closest to humans in our part of the world where other primates don’t exist.”
Unfortunately, we have a funny way of showing it.