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Grizzlies In the Tules, Part 2: Larger Mammals of the Historic Delta

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Hi there! This photo was taken in Alaska, but sights like this were common in the Delta a couple hundred years ago | Photo: Martha de Jong-Lantink/Flickr/Creative Commons License

An explanatory series focusing on one of the most complex issues facing California: water sharing. And at its core is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Stay with for all the project's stories.

The prehistoric Delta was a thousand square miles of wetlands, with some of the most astonishing diversity of wildlife in North America. From waterfowl in flocks large enough to obscure the sunlight, to huge runs of anadromous fish, to a diverse range of mollusks and crustaceans, the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers where they flowed into the Bay was astoundingly rich in life.

And mammals were no exception. In part one of this story, we described the impact the Delta's once-abundant beavers had on the landscape, their engineering projects showing a sophisticated adaptiveness to local conditions.

But what about larger mammals than beavers? Some of the reports are conflicting, and the truth about the presence of at least one popular large predator in the Delta would seem to be anyone's guess. But it's no conjecture that the Delta teemed with huge herds of hoofed mammals, and at least one large species of formidable carnivore took advantage of those herds.

Pedro Font described vast herds of elk from his elevated vantage point west of the Delta. Tule elk, California's endemic elk subspecies, certainly lived in the Delta in historic times. If their behavior elsewhere is any indication, the elk likely roamed in the open uplands and floodplains of the Delta during much of the year, using riparian forests for cover during calving. Given their common name, they probably spent time in the tules as well. Hunting to feed San Franciscans almost eradicated the elk not just from the Delta, but from the planet. The managed herds of tule elk now living in a far-flung archipelago of refuges across the state may descend from just two or four adults kept alive by 19th Century rancher Henry MIller.

Tule elk were extirpated from the Delta by 1860, but some of the descendants of Miller's few head have been "planted" in the nearby Suisun Marsh.

A tule elk buck and a couple of his girlfriends | Photo: Lisa Williams/Flickr/Creative Commons License


Other hoofed mammals of the Delta included black-tailed deer (often called "mule deer," of which black-taileds are a subspecies), and American pronghorn (a.k.a. "antelope," though pronghorn aren't closely related to true antelopes). More commonly associated with interior arid lands, pronghorn were often numerous on the Delta's open grasslands when they weren't in flood.

Huge herds of deer, elk, and pronghorn imply the presence of predators, and there are some sources in print that claim gray wolves hunted the Delta. The actual evidence for this is frustratingly sparse. There are a number of reported archaeological finds of wolf bones in Contra Costa, Alameda, and Santa Clara counties, well within striking range of the Delta for an adult wolf, but archaeologists are split over whether those bones are actually wolf as opposed to domestic dogs or large coyotes. Several Delta-area Native languages do have words for "wolf," with different words for coyotes and dogs, which is evidence that the people that spoke those languages at least knew what wolves were, even if they weren't common.

It's tempting to imagine packs of wolves running down tule elk on the floodplains that became downtown Stockton. And it's certainly possible. There's just no slam-dunk evidence for it.It is certain, however, that there were grizzlies in the Delta's tules. First-hand 19th Century accounts talk about the unease travelers in the Delta felt when confronted with evidence of what was then California's top predator. In 1846, gold-seeker Heinrich Lienhard was making his way on foot with a companion through the northern reaches of the Delta on his way to Sutter's Fort, when their native guide halted them in a thick tangle of riparian forest:

Then came a shrill whistle from the sycamore tree, and the birds flew off together as if they had been shot from a cannon. Thick underbrush that cut off the view grew between us and this particular tree. The noises and sounds of nature were far more obvious to the Indian than to we two American green horns traveling through the forest for the first time, and he seemed frightened and excited by the loud whistling sounds; he stood on his tiptoes, looked in the direction the sounds had come from, then all around without stirring. Observing his agitation I asked, "Is it a wolf?" "No, no," he said. "Is it an elk?" "No, no," he replied again. "Is it a grizzly bear?" "Yes," he whispered quickly...Why the gray rascal allowed us to escape unmolested is a mystery...

California grizzlies would have been seriously intimidating to come upon unexpectedly in a thick riparian Delta jungle. With some of the largest measured specimens weighing in at more than a ton, fiercely strong and able to run at 35 miles an hour, it's understandable that the presence of a California grizzly might have made Lienhard's guide apprehensive.

Grizzlies did occasionally kill people in California, and that's part of the reason why they were exterminated by the 1920s. But their reputation for ferocity and aggressiveness may have been a trifle overblown. Grizzlies and native people coexisted for millennia, with as many as ten thousand of the bears living in the state at any one time.

This artwork in the September 1856 Hutchings' California Magazine became the model for the bear on California's state flag | Image: Charles Nahl


In September 1856, journalist J.M. Hutchings, whose Hutchings' California Magazine remains one of the most colorful sources of contemporary accounts of California life, wrote of the grizzly:

It is not often that the bear will be the aggressor -- never if it can conveniently make off -- except it be a mother with her young cubs, when, without the slightest provocation, she will attack, and an unerring rifle or tree will be almost the only chance of deliverance.

Two decades before the last California grizzly was killed in Tulare County in 1922, author Joaquin Miller wrote:

In the early 50's, I, myself saw the grizzlies feeding together in numbers under the trees, far up the Sacramento Valley, as tranquilly as a flock of sheep. A serene, dignified and very decent old beast was the full-grown grizzly as Fremont and others found him here at home. This king of the continent, who is quietly abdicating his throne, has never been understood. The grizzly was not only every inch a king, but he had, in his undisputed dominion, a pretty fair sense of justice. He was never a roaring lion. He was never a man-eater. He is indebted for his character for ferocity almost entirely to tradition, but, in some degree, to the female bear when seeking to protect her young...

Whether fearsome beast or placid lord of the plains, or -- as is more likely -- some of each, the California griz would have been very much at home in the Delta. Though riparian forests would have provided both shelter and food, the grizzly -- unlike its black bear cousins now raiding picnic baskets in the Sierra -- was a creature of open country. The Delta would have offered a bountiful larder for the bears. Fully capable of taking down an adult elk, grizzlies were also able to subsist on the bulbs of native grassland plants, berries, grubs and larvae, eggs, and shellfish.

They were strong swimmers: early in the 1800s grizzlies swimming in the waters of San Francisco Bay were far from uncommon sights, with bears plying the strong currents of Raccoon Strait the half mile to Angel Island. The Delta's sloughs would have posed no obstacle for the griz, nor would the seemingly impenetrable tangles of tules.

And that was convenient for the grizzlies, because their comfort in the water allowed them to take advantage of one of the Delta's readiest sources of easy protein: Chinook salmon. Salmon would have been present in the Delta's watercourses for much of the year, in numbers as unimaginable as the waterfowl's. Chinook came through the Delta on their way to headwaters stretching from Fresno to Oregon, and the grizzlies were there to scoop up a few hundred pounds each as they made their way upstream.

And then came a century of filling, levee building, river diverting, hydraulic mining, plowing and spraying and hunting and paving. The Delta's habitat has changed, probably irrevocably. The grizzlies are gone, as are the pronghorn and the wolf. The chinook and the tule elk hold on, on life support. Migrating birds may succumb next, once the Delta becomes the sole source of open water in several thousand miles of flyway. Our changes won't be permanent, and nature always bats last, but the Delta that will come after our changes are wiped away will be wholly new. The world may never see grizzlies in the tules again.

Alaska again, but 300 years ago it could have been Lodi. | Photo: Mac Danzig Photography/Flickr/Creative Commons License


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