While a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Sierra Nevada sounds thrilling, it may be too ambitious for at least three reasons: Human encroachment on habitat, climate change and the fact that these bears would be a non-contiguous population in a limited range.
As long as reintroduced grizzlies stayed in the Sierra high country, they might be OK, but one adult male grizzly’s home range can extend 200 to 500 square miles. Their natural habitat includes foothills and grasslands, and movement down into the San Joaquin Valley or the Owens Valley would generate traumatic encounters with humans. While the proposed Sierra habitat for grizzlies may sound robust at 7,747 square miles, it is a fragment of range in the middle of a highly populated state. There would be no connection to the grizzly populations currently in the process of recovering in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Washington.
Human-bear encounters would increase due to climate change and human encroachment on suitable habitat. Increasingly drier conditions in the Sierra would force bears to forage for food at lower elevations, putting them closer to human developments. Grizzly bears would not know the boundaries of that 7,747 square miles of Sierra habitat.
Competition for food would become more stressful and fierce, causing an impact on the less aggressive black bear populations that already exist in the Sierra. And the possibility of a grizzly encounter turned unpleasant would mean that hikers would need to consider carrying high-caliber firearms, transforming their wilderness experience from peaceful and meditative to guarded and vigilant.
With stress on habitat steadily increasing, the assertion that the Sierra can support several hundred grizzly bears today seems unrealistic. While California was home to large numbers of grizzlies before the Spanish and Europeans arrived, the last bear shot in Tulare County in 1922 shows how that story ends.
Why reintroduce grizzly bears into non-contiguous range where they would have to struggle to find a niche in rapidly shrinking and changing habitat? Why not continue to focus on supporting the recovery of existing grizzly populations and the other threatened and endangered species that are already struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions in California?
The loss of the California grizzly bear speaks for all endangered species. Let the grizzly on California’s state flag serve to honor those great bears who once roamed the mountains and grasslands of California with impunity.
Erin Hauge is a certified California naturalist and an advocate for wildlife and habitat conservation and education.