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Not that long ago, grizzly bears ruled the wild places of the western United States, ranging the length of California from the coastal mountains in the south to the Cascade Range in the north.
The brown bears were so ubiquitous that early Californians chose one to adorn their flag, a symbol of the state – awesome, powerful and unstoppable.
No other creature in the land could outfight Ursus arctos horribilis. Not until we came along.
Humans nearly drove this majestic creature into oblivion, slaughtering them for sport, revenge or profit. It’s the official state animal of California, even though it doesn’t live here anymore.
Now, 92 years after the last California grizzly bear was killed in Tulare County, there’s an effort to return them to their ancestral homelands. Or at least those that haven’t been swallowed up by development and could sustain a predator that has been known to grow as large as 2,200 pounds.
Places such as California’s Sierra Nevada.
It’s one of the few locations that the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, is proposing as ideal for a return of the grizzly.
In a petition submitted last month to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the group is urging adding to the current grizzly bear recovery zones. Those additions include the Sierra Nevada and three other spots: Mogollon Rim in Arizona and Gila Wilderness in New Mexico; Grand Canyon in Arizona; and Uinta Mountains in Utah.
Though saved from extinction by federal listing as an endangered species, and now numbering as many as 1,800 in the lower 48 states, the grizzly, or brown bear, exists in only a few spots outside of Alaska – islands around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks in Wyoming and Montana.
Expanding their range would give grizzlies a better shot at surviving the unknowns of climate change, said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species for the Center for Biological Diversity, especially as federal wildlife officials are preparing to remove them from the endangered species list.
The petition is now working its way through a possibly yearslong process.
Though wildlife officials wouldn’t comment on the status of this particular petition, they did tell me it is a viable request from a credible organization that has successfully petitioned on behalf of hundreds of threatened animals. In other words, this isn’t a half-baked petition like the one requesting that Sasquatch be added to the endangered species list.
As an avid hiker with an appreciation for, and healthy fear of, bears, this news both thrilled and alarmed me. I like the idea of a once-threatened species returning to its former habitat. I cheered when OR7, the gray wolf, crossed into California in 2011, the first wolf to return to the Golden State in 70 years.
But when it comes to 1-ton predators, especially those that sometimes eat people, out of sight is my preference. Way out of sight.
Grizzlies in Yosemite
That’s not the plan, however.
Carlos Carroll, a wildlife biologist at the Klamath Center for Conservation Research in Orleans, did research that helped the Center for Biological Diversity map where grizzlies might do well – “make a living,” in bear biologist lingo.
“Our work has suggested that southern Sierra Nevada is a potentially suitable habitat,” Carroll said in an interview.
Suitable means a “large area without human settlements, for the most part, and low number of roads and a core area of national park.” The national parks are key to grizzly survival, he said, because of the limits on guns and hunting.
Specifically, this means Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks. At this moment in high summer season, these parks are teeming with humans.
“I think the area could support perhaps several hundred bears,” Carroll told me.
“You know what that means?” a friend asked last weekend as we hiked around Euer Valley near Truckee. “We’d have to hike with rifles.”
Greenwald thinks that most Californians would be more enthusiastic about the return of grizzlies than me or my gun-toting friends. We’re already surrounded by them, in a sense.
“It’s on your flag. It’s on the highway signs. The name is all over the place. It’s really such a part of the state’s history and heritage,” Greenwald said. “And California is a pretty wildlife-friendly place a place where people can get behind this.”
Of course, it would be a gradual reintroduction. Grizzlies wouldn’t simply be airlifted to Tuolumne Meadows and left to see what happened.
It would require scientific study to make sure each location is viable, and much thought into how it would be undertaken and the public educated. But, Greenwald added, “We know a lot more about living with large predators” than we did 100 years ago when the only good predator was the one stuffed and mounted in the den.
Fears of ‘killer’ grizzly
I have encountered bears several times in my years hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains, San Bernardino Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Most, happily, have been from a distance. And though they are dangerous if you get between them and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, killing humans never seems to be the point of their existence.
Grizzlies, well, that’s a different story. For one thing, they can weigh as much as a small car. Forget about the claws and teeth, just getting hit by one of these can kill you. They have a reputation as man-eaters, reinforced, no doubt, by films such as “Grizzly Man,” the documentary about Timothy Treadwell, the foolhardy bear aficionado who was killed, along with his girlfriend, by a grizzly.
But it’s the periodic and, in my opinion, far too numerous, newspaper accounts of hikers killed by grizzlies that pursued their human quarry with murderous intent that trouble me the most. That could be me.
Sympathy for the predator
Dave Mattson, a grizzly bear ecologist, poked holes in my unscientific theory that, compared to our state’s familiar black bears, grizzlies are maniacal killers.
The only greater risk from grizzly bears, he said, is if you encounter a female with cubs. In fact, if you poke through Wikipedia’s lists of bear fatalities in the U.S., you’ll be struck by a definite trend: Many of the most grisly grizzly attacks were perpetrated by mother bears with cubs in attendance.
In the tales, hapless hikers walk into a meadow or around a bend in the trail, see the bears and abruptly leave as wildlife officials instruct, only to be pursued and mauled.
Mattson, a retired U.S. Geological Service biologist now working with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, explained that there’s a good reason for this. Grizzlies evolved in open environments that made their cubs vulnerable, and their survival depends on aggressively defending their young. That must have been a strategy deeply ingrained into them during the era of intense human predation. It makes good bear sense to chase a hunter out of rifle range.
Black bears, by comparison, send their cubs up a tree when they feel threatened, Mattson said.
People say grizzlies are more aggressive than other bears, Mattson said. “I don’t subscribe to that. It all depends on their level of interaction of other bears and nature of interaction.”
For example, Mattson said, grizzlies that live along the coast in Alaska, and therefore in closer contact with other bears and people, are less aggressive than those who live like hermits in the interior wilderness, suggesting they are adaptable to their surroundings.
California’s other bears – the much smaller black bears – probably have more to worry about if grizzlies return than we do. Both are omnivores, and though black bears can subsist on a “lower quality diet,” they can’t compete for the good stuff with grizzlies which are about twice their size.
Mattson has spent a lot of time around the brown bears as a researcher, including near his home in Paradise Valley, Montana. He said his life has been inexpressibly enriched by his interaction with the bears. He clearly wants that for others, too.
“If we can find place of compassion for the grizzly, we benefit, because that is emblematic of a kind of change in our species,” Mattson said.
Still, I want to go on record as saying I think letting grizzly bears loose in Yosemite is a bad idea.