Nicholas Goldberg: Why make the grizzly bear California’s state animal — after they’re all gone?

For thousands of years, grizzly bears have roamed California, from the far north to what is now the Mexican border.

They were often 8 feet tall when standing, weighed a thousand pounds or more, were golden brown, had a pronounced shoulder hump, and typically lived 20 to 30 years. It is estimated that there were 10,000 in the state at the beginning of the 19th century.

For Teddy Roosevelt, the grizzly was a “great shaggy mountain king,” as he wrote in The Times in 1892. For early California ranchers and sheep farmers, grizzlies were a constant threat to livestock. For aborigines, they were often viewed with religious reverence.

Stipple style portrait illustration by Nicholas Goldberg

opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.

Above all, the bears were a symbol of wild, untamed nature, which some Californians admired and others sought to conquer.

And they conquered. Less than 75 years after statehood, the California grizzly, seen as a threat to westward expansion and human settlement, was gone — hunted, trapped, poisoned, shot.

The last documented killing of a wild grizzly bear in California was in August 1922, probably in Tulare County or Fresno in the Southern Sierra. That was 100 years ago this month.

happy anniversary

Another grizzly was sighted near Sequoia National Park a few years later before migrating away. That was the last seen in the state.

Today, grizzly bears in the Lower 48 are restricted to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Their population dropped from 50,000 to around 1,500 before being declared endangered in 1975. Now there are about 2,000.

In their California heyday, grizzlies – Ursus arctos horribilis – stretched freely through the Santa Monica Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, along the coast of Santa Barbara and throughout the state. Despite their reputation as fierce predators, which they certainly could be, they were typically “fruit- and insectivorous,” as Roosevelt put it in The Times. They scrounged for bugs, berries and fruit. They also ate fish from the rivers and captured whale carcasses on the shore.

And yes, they had a fondness for farm animals if they could get their paws on them.

For Allen Kelly, who wrote a classic book on the subject in 1903, the grizzly has “a reputation far worse than it deserves as an excuse for its persecution and as a justification for its killers”.

Before California’s grizzly bears were killed, the pages of The Times were filled with stories of their ferocity. The newspaper hailed the “king of grizzly bears with one shot,” Chester Ellsworth of Long Beach, who killed 30, each with just one shot from his Winchester 405. There were articles about the ferocious bear-and-bull fights that the People amused themselves and from encounters in the wild. A typical account featured an “exciting fight with Giant Grizzly” and praised the “skill, daring and accuracy” required to hunt them. (Grizzlies can run up to 35 miles per hour for short distances.)

They were killed in what was then the Laurel Canyon wilderness and in Cahuenga Pass near what is now the Hollywood Bowl.

Today it seems odd and offensive that the bear doesn’t just adorn the state flag — California law states that it must be “a brown grizzly bear walking on a green grassy area with all four paws facing left, head and eyes slightly to the right.” Judged are observers” – but is also the official state animal. This was approved by the Legislature and the Governor in 1953.

In other words, the state has given the California grizzly a place of honor just three decades after its total extinction. After torturing the animals with bull-and-bear fights, lassoing them, locking them in cages, putting them on display, hunting them, and poisoning them, the state gave the grizzly the same symbolic distinction as the California sequoia, designated as the state tree referred to as.

Sometimes you have to marvel at people’s boldness, their tolerance for irony and cognitive dissonance.

For my part, as I read about the treatment of grizzly bears by California’s European settlers, I couldn’t help but recall how they treated the Native peoples they encountered.

“It was all part of the same project — a big dispossession,” said Peter Alagona, a professor of environmental sciences at UC Santa Barbara and founder of the California Grizzly Research Network. “It was made very clear that the land needed to be cleared of animals like grizzly bears that would threaten businesses and ranches — and also of indigenous peoples.”

In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity requested that the US Fish and Wildlife Service establish new grizzly recovery zones in California and consider reintroducing the bears into the California ecosystem.

The agency denied the petition, but a court challenge is pending. It would mean bringing grizzlies out of other places like Montana and trying to establish a sustainable population here.

Unsurprisingly, bringing back a wild animal, the subject of such terrifying memories, to a state of 39 million people, ten times the population in 1922, is a very controversial idea.

“Grizzlies are incredibly majestic and inspiring animals,” said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Their reintroduction would right a historic wrong.”

Greenwald notes that in many European countries (and less populated parts of the western US) bears or bear-like live in relatively close contact with humans and conflict is very limited.

Still, it seems unlikely to me that this would happen, especially at a moment when black bears are already being driven from their habitat by wildfires and stumbling onto highways where they are being killed in record numbers.

But what’s the harm in examining what it would take to establish a population and finding out where the bears might have come from and what might be reasonable reintroduction spots?

“All in all, I think people really love bears,” Alagona said. “In our part of the world where there are no other primates, they are the closest thing to humans.”

Unfortunately we have a fun way to show it.

@Nick_Goldberg Nicholas Goldberg: Why make the grizzly bear California’s state animal — after they’re all gone?

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