A Brief History of Bears in the Los Angeles Area

Riders capture a grizzly bear. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Bears: for residents of urban Southern California, they're an occasional if startling reminder of the world's wildness.

As Kate Mather recounts in her story for the Los Angeles Times, our most familiar ursine neighbor, the black bear, is a surprisingly recent arrival. Though well at home today in the region's mountains, black bears are not native to Southern California. Instead, all descend from 27 specimens captured in Yosemite National Park and released in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains in 1933.

But that's not where the saga of bears in Southern California begins.

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Long before the first Yosemite black bear ambled out of its crate near Big Bear Lake, the short-faced bear called prehistoric Los Angeles its home. Possibly the largest carnivorous land mammal ever (though some scientists believe it was actually an herbivore), the short-faced bear would have inspired terror in any human with the misfortune to cross its path. Standing up to twelve feet tall on its hind legs and weighing more than a ton, the short-faced bear was swift for its size, reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour. The only documented encounters have been among paleontologists examining its fossil remains, though paleoindian big-game hunters almost certainly knew and feared the short-faced bear.

Considerable debate surrounds the disappearance of the short-faced bear and other Pleistocene megafauna, which became extinct roughly 12,000 years ago. Leading explanations -- not necessarily mutually exclusive -- include overhunting by paleoindians, climate change, and intense competition for prey with newly arrived humans.

A man poses with a life-size reconstruction of a short-faced bear near the La Brea Tar Pits, where remains of the animal were recovered. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Whatever the reason, the animal's departure left the door open for another shaggy, four-legged giant: the grizzly bear.

Likely arriving some 12,000 years ago as part of a suite of large mammals from north of the continent's ice sheet (others included the bison, elk, moose, and wolf, as well as us humans), the grizzly bear soon established itself at the apex of Southern California's food chain.

An opportunist, the grizzly ate whatever was available -- berries and roots, ground squirrels and fish. It was adept at digging in search of gophers, weasels, and other subterranean rodents. Though they rarely hunted large prey, grizzlies were known to chase mountain lions and other smaller predators away from their kills. A beached whale represented a bonanza for coastal bears.

Locally extinct today, the grizzly bear was once a considerable presence in Southern California. Biologists Tracey Storer and Lloyd Tevis in their seminal 1955 study, "California Grizzly," estimated the animal's population within the Golden State at 10,000. Grizzlies lived along the coast, in riparian zones along the Los Angeles River, and in chaparral. In fact, besides the inland deserts, the one habitat grizzlies seemed to avoid were the coniferous forests associated with black bears today.

Place names attest to the bear's wide distribution. In the San Bernardino Mountains, Bear Valley and Big Bear Lake derive their names from the abundance of grizzlies Benjamin D. Wilson spotted on an expedition through the marshy depression. And in Orange County, according to local lore, Oso Parkway recalls the grizzlies that once roamed the area's foothills.

For millennia, grizzlies shared the region and its natural bounty with native Californians. The animals were dangerous as always; local Indians might have used brushfires in part to clear the landscape of places for bears where bears could hide, and some cultures revered the bear as powerful if morally ambiguous creatures. But whatever their feelings toward the animal, the region's indigenous people seem to have struck an ecological balance with the bear, as local bear populations remained stable for centuries.

The eighteenth-century arrival of Europeans upset that equilibrium. At first, the scales might have tilted toward the grizzlies. Grazing cattle and sheep destroyed the region's native prairies and thus many of the bear's natural food sources, but they also represented easily obtainable meat. Grizzly populations likely boomed where livestock ranged.

Ultimately, though, the newcomers brought doom for the grizzly. Ranchers, miners, and farmers all saw the bear as a menace, particularly when venturing into previously unsettled areas. Grizzlies do not usually antagonize humans but when startled or provoked can prove quite dangerous. A scientific name once applied to the California grizzly -- Ursus horribilis -- reflects the prevalent attitude that developed toward the animal as more people began living in proximity to the bears.

That hostile stance manifested itself in several ways. Some Southern Californians hunted the bears for sport. Others placed them in rings and forced them to fight bulls -- a gruesome practice that began under Spanish rule and continued well after the American conquest. Eventually the object of most human-bear encounters became extermination.

Ludwig Salvator, an Austrian prince who traveled through Southern California in 1876, praised much of the region's native flora and fauna. But he suspended his celebratory tone when addressing the grizzly: "In the habit of roving at night, [the grizzly] goes out after swine as well as many kinds of roots, fruits, and vegetables. Owing to the zealousness of hunters who wage constant warfare on this troublesome neighbor, he is daily growing rarer."

Confronted with this warfare, bears first retreated from the flat lowlands to the chaparral-cloaked hillsides, but by the 1890s they had become a rare sight even in these inaccessible places. A large male bear, later named Monarch, was captured in Los Angeles County in 1889, and a bullet claimed the last known specimen in the San Gabriel Mountains on May 16, 1894. Fourteen years later, a former game warden killed Southern California's last wild grizzly bear in Trabuco Canyon in Orange County.

Though cleared of grizzlies, the region would not be free of bears for long. Just as the fall of the short-faced bear made the rise of the grizzly possible, the local extinction of the grizzly cleared an ecological opening soon exploited by the black bear. By the time the state Fish and Game service introduced the Yosemite black bears to Southern California in 1933, the smaller omnivores had already begun expanding their range into lands once ruled by grizzlies.

Californians capture a grizzly bear. Courtesy of the California State Library.

Two men lasso a bear in Ventura County. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Former game warden W.E. Ed Adkinson killed Southern California's last grizzly bear in Orange County on February 26, 1908. Courtesy of the Orange County Public Library Local History Collection.

A black bear explores a tent. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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