Archive for California Grizzly Bears at Sequoia National Park

California’s Grizzly Bears

California’s Grizzly Bears

In my days as a park ranger, people occasionally asked me why we did not reintroduce grizzly bears at Sequoia National Park.  My answer usually surprised them.

Although the last of them disappeared about eighty years ago, California was once home to a large number of grizzly bears.  With the exception of the desert country in the southeastern  and northeastern parts of the state, these large and powerful animals lived in all parts of the state.

Despite their wide geographical range, however,  the bears were not evenly distributed across the landscape. Unlike black bears, which are forest animals, grizzlies (“brown bears” to biologists) are bears of open country.

This preference, based on feeding habits, meant that California’s grizzlies were most at home in lowland California, particularly in its many oak-studded valleys and along the coast.

What I am saying is that three hundred years ago, if you had gone searching for grizzly bears in California, you would have found the great majority of them not in rugged forested terrain like the Sierra but instead in the very places where we have built California’s modern cities and farms.

In times past, places like the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles Basin, and Santa Clara Valley (what we now call the “Silicon Valley”) provided prime habitat for bears.

The San Joaquin Valley, and especially well-watered places like the Kaweah River Delta, also offered bears good opportunities for  making a living.  To bring this thought home, take a look at your favorite old oak tree in Visalia and consider that that very tree quite likely shaded an occasional grizzly bear until aggressive hunting of bears began here in the 1850s.

The higher altitude areas of our local mountains, on the other hand, never had more than marginal brown bear populations.

All this suggests an unthinkable proposition. If we were to reintroduce grizzly bears into California, we would need to put them not in our Sierran national parks but rather into the midst of our modern cities and farming areas, a proposition that even the most determined of wildlife advocates know will not work.

Modern California simply doesn’t have room for grizzlies. We humans have taken over the bears’ natural range and converted it to our own use.

The California grizzly endures, of course, as a symbol. It graces our state flag with its powerful presence, and provides the University of California with a sports identify. The “golden bears” of UC Berkeley are meant to be grizzlies as are the “bruins” of UCLA.

The bear also lives on another surprising way – in the stock market.  In nineteenth century California, ranchers sometimes brought bulls and grizzly bears into forced conflict as a form of entertainment.  Over time, these gory conflicts became embedded into our language as bull-and-bear fights.  Today, we still interpret the stock market as being a conflict between bulls and bears, an unwitting tribute to California’s wildlife.

In the stock market, the bear stands for the negative side of things. Considering how we treated our grizzlies in the nineteenth century, this seems appropriate. When they weren’t being captured for bull-and-bear fights, California grizzlies were generally killed on sight.  They were gone from the lowlands by the 1870s, and from their last remote refuges by the 1920s.

The purposeful extinction of California’s state emblem haunts our history. Over the past several centuries we have traded bears for cities and farms. Today California provides a home to nearly forty million people, huge acreages of productive farmland, and no wild grizzly bears. The bulls won.