A California Grizzly prowls the San Fernando Valley before European settlement, as envisioned by painter Laura Cunningham.

A California Grizzly prowls the San Fernando Valley before European settlement, as envisioned by painter Laura Cunningham. (Laura Cunningham/Basin and Range Watch)

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Who says the grizzly bear has vanished from California? On the contrary, it’s nearly ubiquitous in the Golden State—on everything from the state flag to T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Of course, the bears themselves have been absent for nearly a century.

Before the Gold Rush, the best guess is there were probably 10,000 grizzlies in California. But in the space of about 75 years, they were trapped and hunted into extinction. Though no one can say with certainty when the last bear expired, by 1930 even unconfirmed sightings had winked out.

“They can be brought back,” insists Noah Greenwald, conservation director for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. In 2014, it petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to expand areas for grizzly recovery into California.

The Gold Rush and repeating rifle proved to be the undoing of the California Grizzly. By the mid 1920s, they had been trapped and hunted into extinction.
The Gold Rush and repeating rifle proved to be the undoing of the California Grizzly. By the mid 1920s, they had been trapped and hunted into extinction. (University of California/Bancroft Library)

That petition was denied. The agency said it didn’t want to divert resources from its efforts to rebuild the brown bears’ populations elsewhere in the Lower 48. Currently wildlife officials estimate there are no more than 2,000 grizzlies spread across Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington (with a much larger population in Alaska).

“Certainly in Yellowstone National Park, which gets more than three million visitors a year, grizzly bears are a tremendous draw there and a real source of joy,” observes Greenwald.

And yes, they can be a source of danger. A female grizzly with cubs killed a hiker in Yellowstone last year—but bear attacks are exceedingly rare. So the Center for Biological Diversity is betting on taking its case directly to the public. It’s gathered about 13,000 signatures on an online petition, and is about to launch the next phase of a web and social media campaign under the banner, “Bring Back the Bear.”

The "Bring Back the Bear" campaign features a bearless state flag.
The “Bring Back the Bear” campaign features a bearless state flag. (Gyro/Center for Biological Diversity)

“I do think it’s something—with some education and with further study—something that people could and will rally around,” Greenwald speculates.

Hollywood hasn’t exactly advanced the cause, doing for Grizzlies more or less what “Jaws” did for sharks—last year’s Oscar nominee for best picture being only the latest example. Leonardo DiCaprio’s violent encounter with a mama grizzly was likely the most talked-about scene in “The Revenant.”

There Are Bears—And Then There Are Grizzlies

Right now, the only encounter possible with a native California grizzly, is at the California Museum in Sacramento, where Monarch, the bear that served as a model for the state flag, stands stuffed behind glass walls.

Clearly some prefer their grizzlies that way and they’re not alone. State wildlife officials are, to say the least, skeptical of the bid to reestablish the bears in California.

Listen to the Story:


Yellowstone grizzly recording by Bernie Krause/Wild Sanctuary

Marc Kenyon is a bear biologist; a big, bearded bear of a guy himself, Kenyon heads the state’s Human-Wildlife Conflict Program.

“That grizzly would turn this thing into a tin can in a hurry,” says Kenyon, showing me the trailers his agency uses to trap and transport injured or wayward black bears.

Kenyon’s agency puts the number of black bears in California at somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000—but clearly black bears are not grizzlies, which can easily be twice the size, a thousand pounds or more. And even though the bears would be placed in remote areas, there’s no guarantee they would stay put.

“One thing I can tell you about bears is that bears roam,” says Kenyon. “And they’ll roam a long distance.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has identified nearly 8,000 square miles of potential habitat in the remote Sierra Nevada, with a smaller area near the Oregon border. Kenyon’s not sure it’s enough.

“I can only imagine how far a grizzly bear in California might roam,” he says, “in search for food, in search for mates, in search for its own habitat, its own territory.”

Source: Center for Biological Diversity
Source: Center for Biological Diversity (Teodros Hailye/KQED Science)

Even advocates, like nature journalist Jason Mark, concede that this wouldn’t be an easy lift.

“I don’t want to at all underestimate the challenge of something ambitious like this,” says Mark, author of “Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man.”

He says the hardest part might be “changing the way that we think of what wild nature is good for.”

“Is it good, for us, just as a place to go recreate and watch and look at, or does wild nature have some intrinsic rights of its own?” he asks. “And in that sense the bear does have a right to return to what was once its homeland.”

Mark says the large carnivores could have ecological benefits, aiding in seed dispersal and balancing populations of smaller prey animals.

But Kenyon isn’t convinced that it’s the best thing for species like California’s declining deer population, or even for the bears themselves at this point.

“For a stable grizzly bear population, we’re looking in excess of 200 animals—that can find each other,” says Kenyon. By comparison, the Yellowstone grizzly population numbers about 700.

“If you get down to a density where the animals can’t find each other, you’re lessening the chance for them to breed,” he says, “and then you’re lessening the chance for the species to survive in the long term.”

C. Hart Merriam's hand-colored map shows grizzlies in widely varied habitats across California. He also identified several subspecies.
C. Hart Merriam’s hand-colored map shows grizzlies in widely varied habitats across California. He also identified six subspecies. (University of California/Bancroft Library)

Grizzlies … in Oakland?

Which brings us to the Oakland Zoo, where construction crews have started work on its California Trail project. The exhibit will feature the state’s iconic critters from big cats to condors, and the centerpiece will be a three-acre grizzly “habitat.”

“You know, unfortunately they tell sort of the sad history of humans and wildlife here in California,” says Colleen Kinzley, who directs animal care, conservation and research at the zoo.

“We want people to be aware of that,” she says. “I mean, despite the fact that the grizzly bear is on our flag and our state seal, many people don’t know that grizzlies existed in California and are really a part of this habitat and environment.”

The zoo is preparing for its first bears-in-residence sometime next year. And Kinzley says the best way to “bring back the bears” in the wild would be to let them come back on their own.

“You can’t just plop a large predator into a location and say, ‘Alright, everybody just get along,'” she says. “The bear will lose if you don’t have complete buy-in from all the different constituencies.”

It would be a long shot, to be sure, but it’s theoretically possible that, say, the tiny population of grizzlies in the Washington Cascades might work their way down into California, much as wolves have drifted down from Oregon.

“It would be a long way off but I think probably easier than getting everyone to agree to bring bears from somewhere and put them in California,” says Kinzley. Kenyon agrees.

In any case, it’s likely that for a long time to come, the only way to see live grizzlies in California will be with a big fence around them.

Featured art by Laura Cunningham, author of A State of Change and co-founder of the desert conservation group Basin and Range Watch.

Move to Return Grizzly Bears to California Will Be an Uphill Push 5 May,2016Craig Miller

  • Robert Thomas

    Aside from not knowing how to pronounce “Concord”, Mr Miller advertises cluelessness by not mentioning during this segment that the California Grizzly, Ursus arctos californicus, was a distinct subspecies that is now extinct. “Re-establishing” a grizzly bear population in California would involve importation of an invasive species. As one of those interviewed noted, if Ursus arctos horribilis, the common grizzly, succeeds in immigrating by itself, that’s another matter.

    The threat to the environment related here is the imbecile Arizonan who should be given severe psychiatric scrutiny and be strongly urged to mind his own business. Maybe he can work on restoring Tyrannosaurus rex back to the area around Tempe. Good luck with that.

    The California grizzly bear looks right and proper on the state flag. Leave it there.

    • The point you raise is an interesting one and could be made effectively
      without personal attacks. Leaving that aside, yes, any bears brought in
      would be a subspecies distinct from the original California grizzly,
      which is now extinct. Those who support re-establishing the bears in
      California consider that a “distinction without a difference” for their
      purposes. As Chris Servheen (who does not explicitly support the idea)
      of the University of Montana put it to me, “They’re all grizzlies.”
      Marc
      Kenyon’s concerns expressed in the story essentially reflect your point
      that the impact of imported grizzlies might indeed be that of an
      invasive species on dwindling deer populations and other aspects of the
      current ecosystem.

      • Lola Themola

        I thought our deer populations were expanding due to lack of predators. Is this not the case?

        • This is something that Marc Kenyon, the state Dept. of Fish & Wildlife biologist brought up in our interview. I, too, was surprised to hear that but there’s also new research out of San Jose State U. to back it up. The author, G. Kent Webb, says the deer population in California has declined dramatically in the last 65 years and is near historically low levels.

  • Yosemite Steve

    Interesting article, but I believe that Monarch’s stuffed hide is at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and his bones are kept at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, on the UC Berkeley Campus, not in Sacramento.

    • Normally you’d be right, Steve, but he has taken up temporary residence in Sac as part of a special exhibit, thru June 19. You might like to check it out: http://www.californiamuseum.org/bear-mind

      • Yosemite Steve

        Good to know! I helped develop some of the content for that Bear in Mind exhibit a few years back, most notably a short video and several maps. Glad to see it’s still out touring!

        • Interesting, so Steve, where do you come down on the whole “bring ’em back” question?

          • Yosemite Steve

            It’s a romantic idea, but in a state of 30 million humans, it doesn’t seem very politically practical. Even though the last grizzlies were found in the Sierra, it wasn’t thought to be their best habitat. It’s hard to imagine that reintroduced bears would keep to the mountains, especially in the winter, when they would most likely move into the human occupied foothills in search of acorns, just as black bears do today. Nearly the entire state is grizzly habitat, and places like the Santa Ana’s, the central coast and the bay area all supported healthy grizzly populations.

  • Elizabeth Bolin

    “The Center for Biological Diversity has identified nearly 8,000 square miles of potential habitat in the remote Sierra Nevada, with a smaller area near the Oregon border.”

    Look at the historic map provided, where did the majority of California grizzlies live?
    NOT in the remote Sierra Nevada and NOT on the Oregon border.
    Why? Because their prime habitat was the coast range and valley, the mountains were mainly black bear.
    So in short, yes please do bring back the grizzly IF you will put them back in their traditional preferred habitat.
    And you can’t argue that they couldn’t live their because the black bears have moved into the majority of those areas and are doing just fine.

    The issue here is the people that want to re-wild California, but, not in my backyard…

    • Yep. They were well distributed around the state and are pretty much omnivores. Kinzley says only about 20% of their diet was meat–and they’ll go where the food is.

  • Hanna Strauss

    Unfortunately,I don’t believe there is enough unaltered habit to sustain grizzlies any longer. Too much human settlement and habitat alteration in what was once the grizzlys’ natural range. Most of the changes have been agricultural in nature; especially around the Great Valley. It’s a nice romantic idea, but humans have most likely spoiled their natural rangelands. The Nature Preserve areas that exist around the Great Valley are not large enough to sustain grizzly bears

  • Jo Pavlina

    I’m 64 years old and have seen both black bears and grizzly in the wild and do know the difference. Some may flight this but there are still grizzlys in CA. In June of 2015 on road trip to Lassen we saw a Griz. He was coming up a steep hill and had just reached the road. Back end still over edge, one paw mid stride one paw on ground. We made eye contact, I was driving a pickup. One look and before that paw hit the ground he spun and was back down the hill in a cloud of dirt. Large head, rounds ears, LONG front claws, and that tell tail hump. No mistake. So science does not know everhing. I never could figure with millions of pisteen wilderness in CA. How could they ever know for sure 100% without a doubt that all are gone.

    • Good question and an intriguing account, which you should report to the CA Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, if you haven’t already. I would be curious to know how often they get unconfirmed sightings like this. The catch, as I’m sure you know, is that “unconfirmed” part.

      • Jo Pavlina

        Thank-you for the repy. I really had no interest in the forest service telling me..No, it was a brown colored black bear. I’ll just keep the memory.

  • TomHouse

    This is an unfathomably bad idea.

    For what purpose? To make ourselves feel better? Do any of these people advocating a return of the grizzly actually spend time backpacking?

    I’m a dedicated backcountry enthusiast and I will fight this tooth and nail. The bears are GONE. Bringing them back will only introduce what’s now a non-native species, not to mention import a MASSIVE threat to the backpacking community.

Author

Craig Miller

Craig is KQED's science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.