A Brief History of Bears in the Los Angeles Area | KCET
A Brief History of Bears in the Los Angeles Area
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.
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.
For Teachers: Lesson Plan
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.
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.
Here are the eight best drive-in theaters in SoCal where you can snuggle up to a blanket in your jammies and take in an outdoor flick under the night sky, without ever leaving your car.
On the heels of two highly publicized parties, one of which ended in a fatal shooting, Los Angeles County's public health director warned again today that such gatherings are forbidden under coronavirus-prevention orders, and attending them endangers the
Councilman David Ryu introduced a motion today that seeks to increase penalties against property owners who skirt building and safety rules or city laws, such as the Los Angeles party house ordinance.
Museums had been enticing audiences through their doors with great exhibitions and programming, but the pandemic put a stop to that. Here are some ways they’re continuing their mission while in quarantine.
- 1 of 328
- next ›
Griffith Park is one of the largest municipal parks in the United States. Its founder, Griffith J. Griffith, donated the land to the city as a public recreation ground for all the people — an ideal that has been challenged over the years.
During World War II, three renowned photographers captured scenes from the Japanese incarceration: outsiders Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams and incarceree Tōyō Miyatake who boldly smuggled in a camera lens to document life from within the camp.
Prohibition may have outlawed liquor, but that didn’t mean the booze stopped flowing. Explore the myths of subterranean Los Angeles, crawl through prohibition-era tunnels, and visit some of the city’s oldest speakeasies.
Although best known for designing the homes of celebrities like Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra, the pioneering African-American architect Paul Revere Williams also contributed to some of the city’ s most recognizable civic structures.
As recently as a century ago, scientists doubted whether the universe extended beyond our own Milky Way — until astronomer Edwin Hubble, working with the world’s most powerful telescope discovered just how vast the universe is.
- 1 of 5
- next ›