For thousands of years, grizzly bears roamed California from the far north to what is now the Mexican border.
Often 8 feet tall when standing, weighing a thousand pounds or more, they were golden brown, with a pronounced shoulder hump, and they typically lived 20 to 30 years. It is estimated that there were 10,000 in the state in the early 19th century.
For Teddy Roosevelt, the grizzly bear was a “great king of the shaggy mountains,” as he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1892. For early cattle ranchers and sheep herders in California, grizzly bears were a persistent threat to the cattle. For natives, they were often viewed with religious reverence.
Above all, bears were a symbol of a wild and untamed nature, which some Californians admired and others sought to conquer.
And conquer they did. Less than 75 years after statehood, the California grizzly bear, considered a threat to westward expansion and human settlements, was gone – hunted, trapped, poisoned, shot.
The last recorded kill of a wild grizzly bear in California was in August 1922, likely in Tulare or Fresno county in the southern Sierra. It was 100 years ago this month.
Another grizzly was spotted a few years later near Sequoia National Park before moving away. It was the last seen in the state.
Today, Lower 48 grizzly bears are confined to Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Their population dropped from 50,000 to about 1,500 before being declared endangered in 1975. Today, there are about 2,000.
In their heyday in California, grizzly bears – Ursus arctos horribilis – roamed freely in the Santa Monica and Sierra Nevada Mountains, along the Santa Barbara coast, and throughout the state. Despite their reputation as ferocious predators, which they certainly could be, they were normally “frugivorous and insectivorous,” as Roosevelt put it in The Times. They were looking for insects, berries and fruits. They also ate fish in the rivers and collected whale carcasses on the coast.
And, yes, they were fond of cattle when they could get their paw on them.
For Allen Kelly, who wrote a classic 1903 book on the subject, the grizzly has “a reputation much worse than it deserves, as an excuse for its persecution and a justification for its murderers”.
Today, it seems strange and offensive that the bear not only adorns the state flag – California law says it must be “a brown grizzly bear walking to the left with all four paws on a patch of green grass with its head and eyes slightly turned towards the observer” – but is also the official state animal. This was approved by the Legislature and Governor in 1953.
In other words, the state has elevated the California grizzly bear to a place of honor only three decades after wiping it out entirely. After tormenting the animals with bull and bear fights, lassoing them, caging them, displaying them, hunting them and poisoning them, the state has given the grizzly bear the same position of symbolic distinction that it gave to the California redwood, designated the state tree.
Sometimes you have to marvel at the audacity of humans, the tolerance for irony and cognitive dissonance.
In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service to designate new grizzly bear recovery areas in California and to consider reintroducing bears to the California ecosystem.
The agency denied the petition, but a legal challenge is pending. That would mean bringing in grizzlies from elsewhere, like Montana, and trying to build a sustainable population here.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a hotly debated idea – bringing a wild animal that is the subject of such chilling memories back to a state of 39 million people, or 10 times the population in 1922.
“Grizzlies are incredibly majestic and inspiring animals,” said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Reintroducing them would right a historic wrong.”
Greenwald notes that in many European countries (and in less populated parts of the western United States), bears, or the like, live in relatively close contact with people, and conflict is very limited.
What’s the harm in studying what it would take to establish a population, and figuring out where the bears might come from and what might be reasonable reintroduction sites?
“Overall, I think people really like bears,” Alagona said. “They are the closest thing to humans in our part of the world where other primates don’t exist.”
Unfortunately, we have a funny way of showing it.
Nicholas Goldberg is associate editor and opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by content agency Tribune.