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Bringing Back the California Grizzly

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This used to be the face of California. | Photo: Nathan Rupert, some rights reserved

They once ruled most of California, mountains of tooth, claw, and tawny fur that changed the landscape just by living there. Now they exist only on the state flag. The California grizzly, which once roamed the state’s open hills and numbered in the tens of thousands, was finally exterminated in 1924, when the last known griz was shot in Tulare County.

Now, a wildlife advocacy group is getting press for a campaign to bring California’s top carnivore back, or at least to get the state’s government to take the idea seriously. And it’s all part of a broader vision of helping grizzly populations recover across the west.

In a public petition campaign, the Center for Biological Diversity is asking fans of the big bear to urge the California Fish and Game Commission to explore options for bringing the grizzly back to the Golden State. If the Commission decides to heed the petition, that would likely mean ordering the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to conduct a study on the feasibility of reintroducing the grizzly to California.

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California grizzlies were a subspecies of brown bear, Ursus arctos, which was once widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere in Eurasia and North America. Still reasonably abundant in Alaska and Canada, the bear has been pushed to near-extinction in the Lower 48 by hunting, habitat loss and other conflicts with humans. According to the Center, there’s potential habitat covering 8,000 square miles of the southern Sierra Nevada that the state could at least consider seeding with transplanted grizzlies. Previous assessments by wildlife scientists have also mentioned areas in the northwest corner of the state, the Klamath Mountains and Trinity Alps, as potential new homes for grizzly bears.  

The petition isn’t the first time the Center for Biological Diversity has tried to influence agencies to bring grizzlies back to parts of the western states they once roamed. In 2014, the group petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to conduct similar feasibility studies on the prospect of reintroducing the brown bears to wilderness areas throughout the western United States, including, in the words of the petition, “the Gila/Mogollon complex in Arizona and New Mexico, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Sierra Nevada in California, the Uinta Mountains in Utah, and areas of southern Utah.”

That suggestion was part of a proposal to expand the Federal government’s plan to recover grizzly populations under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Though California’s brown bears were exterminated almost a century ago, they do just barely hang on in about four percent of their historic habitat elsewhere in the Lower 48, notably in their stronghold in and near Yellowstone National Park. The bears have been listed as a Threatened species under the ESA since 1975.

Despite the 2014 petition, along with a separate petition by the Center to develop a grizzly reintroduction plan for the Selway-Bitterroot area in Idaho and Montana, USFWS is attempting to head in the opposite direction. In March, the agency proposed to strip Yellowstone grizzlies from protection under ESA, a move that would allow bear hunting to start in the area. The agency tried to remove protection from Yellowstone bears once already, in 2007, but those plans were undone by a series of court decisions.

The Center and other groups are fighting the Yellowstone delisting proposal. But in the meantime, as long as  USFWS is determined to look the other way on grizzly reintroduction for now, the Center is turning to California’s state wildlife agency to ask them to consider what bringing back the bears might look like.

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Kind of like this diorama at the L.A. Natural History Museum, but without the taxidermy | Photo: Steve, some rights reserved

“California is key,” says Jeff Miller, a longtime conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity and a fan of large carnivores. “We knew when we petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that any plans to bring back the grizzly would need support from the state of California. So now we’re approaching the state directly.”

One thing’s for certain: even if the bears are reintroduced to the southern Sierra Nevada, the life of a typical California grizzly will be very different from that of its average bear predecessors. Both proponents and opponents of reintroduction agree that the best old-school habitat for California grizzlies just isn’t available right now. That’s because the habitat California grizzlies liked best back in the day is also the habitat California humans like best: the temperate, fertile valleys and hills within a hundred miles of the Pacific coast.

As filmmaker Laura Purdy shows in this short documentary, featured on KCET’s Lost LA, humans and grizzlies were able to coexist for centuries in coastal California mainly because humans hadn’t altered the landscape quite as radically as we have now. In fact, some traditional landscape alterations, such as planned burning, actually made it easier for bears and people to get along.

Planned burning is a little more complicated in prime California grizzly habitat like San Luis Obispo these days, and there are several million more humans in the state now than there were in 1491. Until things change dramatically along the coast, even hypothetical grizzly reintroductions will be restricted to the southern Sierra Nevada and similarly remote places in the state. Grizzlies there won’t be able to dine on dead marine mammals the way their 19th Century forebears did, but between the Sierra’s whitebark pines, whose nuts are a staple for the bears elsewhere, and other food such as meadow bulbs, small animals, and carrion, the Range of Light may well prove a suitable home for the brown bears.

In fact, there’s some thought that grizzlies may even benefit the Sierran ecosystem, by dispersing tree seeds and creating the kind of moderate soil disturbance that is generally lacking in the mountains nowadays.

What about public safety? The thought of bringing back an occasionally cranky, carnivorous species that can reach almost a ton in mass, and which can maintain a speed of 30 miles per hour for a quarter mile of more, has raised a few human hackles in California. But most of the people likely to come into contact with bears transplanted into the southern Sierra seem to be taking a “wait and see” stance. Casey Schreiner, editor and founder of the popular Southern California outdoor recreation website Modern Hiker, says he hasn’t heard a whole lot of reaction to the Center for Biological Diversity’s petition.

"I think you'd probably find that a lot of hikers prefer dealing with the more docile black bears,"  Schreiner told me. "Black bears, I'm confident around. Grizzlies give me a bit of pause."

“But I think that most of the people who are for the reintroduction are hikers who are more holistically-habitat-minded and understand that it would be good for the overall ecosystem." 

For some lovers of large mammals, the return of the grizzly to California might have the ring of inevitability. In a landmark 2001 essay, a team of wildlife biologists — Reed Noss, Paul Paquet, Carlos Carroll and Nathan Schumaker —  discussed whether the reintroduction of grizzlies, wolves, and wolverines to California might well be feasible. The gray wolf, which recolonized Northern California in 2014, and the wolverine, which was discovered already living in the Sierra Nevada nearly a decade ago, would seem to have answered part of that question on their own. 

Perhaps it's just the grizzly's turn.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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