Opinion: It’s Time to Bring the Grizzly Bear Back to California

Biologists estimate that there were about 10,000 grizzlies in California before the Gold Rush.

Biologists estimate that there were about 10,000 grizzlies in California before the Gold Rush. (University of California/Bancroft Library)

In the mid-19th century, there were as many as 10,000 brown bears in California — a greater population density than in Alaska today. The last documented sighting was in 1924. Now all that remains is the profile of the powerful bruin on the state flag.

No doubt some people will freak out at the prospect of the Lower 48’s biggest predator haunting the woods. But there are good reasons to return the animal to the Bear Flag Republic. Grizzly reintroduction would have clear ecological benefits. And it would have cultural benefits, too, by prompting us to rethink what nature is “good for.”

California is already crawling with predators. We have mountain lions in Los Angeles — where the Internet-famous “Hollywood Lion” stalks mule dear in Griffith Park — and one in San Francisco, too, where a cougar was captured on a security camera last summer.

The reappearance of mountain lions is an example of what conservation biologists call “rewilding.” In some instances, like that of the mountain lion, the wild animals find their way back on their own. In other cases, state or federal agencies have made determined efforts to bring back animals hunted and trapped to oblivion or pushed out by development.

The reintroduction of gray wolves to the Northern Rockies in the late 1990s is the best-known rewilding story. Twenty-one years after wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park, there is an established population and some have migrated as far as Northern California, where, in August, a pack was confirmed in the state for the first time since 1924.

The return of the gray wolf to the rural West has been hugely controversial, marked by serial court cases, Capitol Hill maneuverings, vigilantism (in the form of poaching animals listed as endangered) and fiery debates that have scorched western communities. For many ranchers and hunters, the return of the wolf represents a dangerous surrendering of human control over the landscape. To supporters of rewilding, the success of the wolf is a kind of ecological restorative justice.

Grizzlies appear to have loved California's varied habitats--but do Californians love the bears enough to bring them back?
Grizzlies appear to have loved California’s varied habitats–but do Californians love the bears enough to bring them back? (University of California/Bancroft Library)

Bringing back grizzly bears to California is the latest rewilding idea. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based conservation group, filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider reintroducing the grizzly in the Southwest and California. The agency denied the request, and now the organization plans to petition the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to bring back the bear.

“Grizzly bears were a common part of the California landscape and had been there for eons, and we wiped them out,” says Noah Greenwald, the endangered species coordinator at the Center for Biological Diversity. “By bringing them back we would be righting a historic wrong.”

Grizzlies originally occupied varied habitats in California, including river valleys during seasons when salmon were plentiful.
Grizzlies originally occupied varied habitats in California, including river valleys during seasons when salmon were plentiful. (Laura Cunningham/Basin and Range Watch)

Returning grizzlies to California would have real ecological advantages. Wildlife biologists have shown that restoring large predators to a landscape can have consequences that ripple across an ecosystem. This phenomenon is called “trophic cascades.” Imagine: a wolf reappears on the scene. Suddenly, the elk and deer have to be alert. Their newly cautious behavior gives aspen and willow a chance to thrive, which provide fresh habitat for beaver and songbirds. David Mattson, a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry, says grizzlies would have “demonstrable ecosystem effects” were they reintroduced to California. Brown bears would assist with seed dispersal and soil aeration as they tear into the ground hunting for gophers and voles. Coastal grizzly would move nutrients upstream and inland via their consumption of spawning salmon.

But state wildlife officials are cool on the idea. “Grizzly bears traditionally would roam oak woodlands and even beaches and eat whale carcasses and whatnot,” says California Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Jordan Traverso. “So you’d be introducing them in places where people are now, not the typical black bear habitat. So we are not supportive of that proposal, even a little bit.”

Grizzly bears feeding on a beached whale carcass, as imagined by artist Laura Cunningham.
Grizzly bears feeding on a beached whale carcass, as imagined by artist Laura Cunningham. (Laura Cunningham/Basin and Range Watch)

Still, the idea is not as outlandish as it might sound.

A study of Europe published in the journal Science found that large carnivores are successfully sharing landscapes with people. Some 17,000 brown bears (Ursus arctos, essentially the same species as the North American grizzly) live in 22 European countries, making the bear the most abundant large carnivore on the continent. Europe is also home to 12,000 wolves, twice as many as in the United States, despite the continent having twice the population density. The study found that large carnivores “have shown an ability to recolonize areas with moderate human densities if they are allowed, and to persist in highly human-dominated landscapes and in the proximity of urban areas.”

Martin Lewis, a geographer at Stanford who has studied the politics of rewilding, says the problem with grizzly reintroduction is not a lack of suitable habitat. But, he says, “there are questions about coexistence. People can learn to live with them, but there will be trade-offs. There will be encounters, and some of those encounters will be negative.”

Let’s face it. Wolves eat cattle and prized game like elk. Grizzlies sometimes attack backpackers. Mountain lions sometimes go after hikers. Acknowledging such dangers is not being callous toward human life, but recognizes that the lives of these animals, and the role they play in the environment, also matter.

The risks are worth it. The presence of grizzlies and mountain lions and wolves are reminders that nature in its wilder states is not here to serve us, and that wild animals and wild places have their own interests. Can we cohabitate with wild animals though they might pose a threat to us?

Such coexistence will require us to rethink some of our assumptions about wild nature. Do we want nature to always conform neatly to human desires — a garden to be tended by our hands, or an idyllic retreat imagined by the Romantics? Or are we willing to live with a nature that is wilder? A nature that is uncontrolled, unpredictable, and possibly dangerous. One where you could end up as lunch if you’re not careful.

To accept the return of large carnivores will demand a selflessness to which, as a species, we are unaccustomed. It will also require a measure of courage. After all, it’s easy to love a nature that just looks pretty. It’s a much more difficult task to live with a nature that can be threatening — a wolf pack in the pasture, a lion on the prowl under streetlights and, yes, grizzlies in the woods.

Jason Mark is the author of “Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man” and editor of Sierra magazine.

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

Opinion: It’s Time to Bring the Grizzly Bear Back to California 5 May,2016Craig Miller

  • stewart lands

    I have to disagree with the author’s suggestion that repopulating California with grizzlies is worth the risk of exposing humans to bears of this nature. Grizzlies are nothing like black bears and cannot be expected to avoid people whenever possible. They have no fear of humans. The only thing that keeps them away from human prey and property is plenty of other food, and California is pretty well devoid of the sorts of foods these bears require. The salmon runs of the Klamath and Sacramento rivers are gone, except those few fish raised in hatcheries with sportsmen’s dollars which will evaporate as soon as these people realize that their money is intended for bear food rather than human access to these resources. Berry patches and grassy meadows along major water ways intermingle with residences, garbage cans, pets, livestock and children. Are there so many elk, deer, black bears and marmots in California that we need grizzlies to control them? Where is the native system in which we expect to witness the trophic cascade? We are not Yellowstone with millions of acres to dedicate to this species. If, as I anticipate, grizzlies are squeezed into marginal habitat along with humans after populating suitable wild habitat, then Californians are on the hook for management costs, not to mention risk.

    • Laurie Campbell

      Just an FYI, that trophic cascade thing has been debunked and discredited. Kinda like Isle Royale, another 50 year waste of taxes. Nature, it turns out, doesn’t magically keep itself balanced and provide rainbows over puppies and kittens as the credits roll. It must be managed by man, and they know this as the park services kill some 4000 wild animals/year. Every year. So much for mother earth.

  • Laurie Campbell

    Why is it that sierra club pukes always talk about how predator lives matter but view ungulates as simply walking box lunches? I am a huge lover of elk and you need to see videos of bears slooowwly devouring baby elk from the rear inward over hours and hours of suffering and intense pain for an infant elk….bending their legs backward in the air while they cry in vain. But I support this move to restore grizzlies all over the west coast. You betcha. It is exactly what is needed to help sierra club donors open their eyes to life with an apex predator down the street or on their favorite beach or hiking trail. Better yet, none of them carry!! Here’s your sign. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDbY0Qjm_08

  • Laurie Campbell

    Jason Mark, I could not find an email for you. I wanted to let you know that I live in the woods of northern Michigan on acreage and we grow food just like you. We also feed wild rabbits, squirrels, chipmunk, porcupine, grouse, deer, and anything else that appears hungry in the winter here. Tons of birds…one of my greatest pleasures in life was to walk a dog or two offleash down the road surrounded by woods – they are perfect on a recall you see. But. Cannot do that safely anymore as they have spotted a wolf pack an hour away. I read your piece for Scientific American on wolves and I agree with those people you interviewed. Additionally when the wolves get here they will kill our giant wild rabbits, any grouse that happen to visit again, and of course the horses down the road will be at great risk, the deer, and if I don’t carry while walking a dog onleash – my dogs. And carrying may not be enough because the wolves here are 170 lbs or so. So thanks for a fairly honest presentation in the piece. But try to read up on agenda 21 before you poke too much fun at those who understand it. and above all try to understand that our neighborhood is paradise to us and filled with all kinds of wildlife that will be gone soon. Soon we will be living under seige, never knowing if a wolf is just inside the woods to the right of us on the dirt road where we live. And never seeing our lovely friends in the wild again. What I fervently, passionately, hope for is for this to happen to you, in your “neighborhood”. And those of your ilk. Drop me a line sometime and let me know how that goes.

  • Deborah Marie Flower Power

    YES !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

    • Susan

      California no longer has the wild game, wild berries nor the salmon runs to support a population of grizzlies. We were already dumb enough to protect a non endangered species (Mountain Lions) via an emotion driven referendum a number of years ago lets not compound the problem. We can handle a small population of wolves but get too many given the lack of wild life (mostly due to years worth of drought) and you have a recipe for a disaster.

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