Arts & Theater

A missing mascot: Californians mourn the grizzly, mull its return

The artwork “Grizzly Bear Fishing” is part of the “Bear In Mind: The Story of the California Grizzly” exhibit that will hang through June 19 at the California Museum.
The artwork “Grizzly Bear Fishing” is part of the “Bear In Mind: The Story of the California Grizzly” exhibit that will hang through June 19 at the California Museum. C Hart Merriam Pictorial Collection

Monarch the bear is a regal presence on four legs, his long claws curling out from a thick golden-and-chestnut pelt. Even in taxidermied form, the grizzly is a sight to behold.

10,000grizzly bears were killed between 1850 and 1924

Currently on display at the California Museum in downtown Sacramento through June 19, Monarch helps tell the violent story of how Gold Rush settlers eliminated the state’s grizzly bear population nearly 100 years ago. Monarch, owned by media tycoon William Randolph Hearst and the model for the California state flag, was among the last remaining grizzlies in California, and now serves as an icon to those who want to bring grizzlies back to the Sierra Nevada.

“I don’t think people are always told about this, and that’s an opportunity lost,” said museum executive director Amanda Meeker on the extinction of the grizzly. “An opportunity to think about the fact that the bear is gone, and he’s been gone for a long time. … It’s a cautionary tale. Many of us are sorry that we lost the grizzly.”

Monarch’s pelt is part of the “Bear in Mind” exhibit, a traveling display that pays tribute to the grizzlies of yore while adding fire to a modern-day debate over whether to designate California as a grizzly population recovery area.

(The grizzly bear) is everywhere, and yet it’s nowhere.

Peter Alagona, professor of environmental studies and history at UC Santa Barbara

About 10,000 grizzly bears roamed the valleys, foothills and coastal areas of California in the early 1800s, mostly living peacefully with native Californians and enjoying the region’s bounty of seafood and vegetation, the exhibit says.

When Gold Rush settlers arrived in the 1850s, however, the bears were in their way, said Susan Snyder, author of “Bear in Mind: The California Grizzly,” on which the museum exhibit is based. Frontiersmen began killing the bears for sport, meat or their pelts.

To illustrate that slaughter, the display cases at the exhibit contain a massive bear trap as well as images of grizzlies in captivity, sometimes dressed up in tutus for entertainment. The last California grizzly was spotted near Sequoia National Park in 1924.

“People were afraid of them so they killed on principle,” Snyder said. “There was a big impulse to settle California and make it a civilized place like the Eastern states, and one of the ways to do that was to eliminate all things wild.”

About 1,700 grizzly bears remain in the lower 48 U.S. states, most of them in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. That number has roughly doubled from their previous count during the past 40 years, since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared grizzlies a threatened species in 1975.

Still, the bears only roam about 2 percent of their historic range in the lower 48, according to the service. Many people would like to see the preservation of larger, safer and more abundant habitats for the long-abused animal, said Peter Alagona, a University of California, Santa Barbara, professor who studies the politics of endangered species.

Alagona has been closely following efforts to bring the grizzly bear back to what many see as its rightful home.

“The conversation is just beginning,” he said. “There is this sense of irony, a sense of loss, a sense that it doesn’t have to be that way – that in some way the state is kind of incomplete without them.”

But bringing the bear back to California comes with a lot of complicated questions. What species of grizzly would do well here? Where would these bears live? What kind of education would be needed to keep the public safe? The subspecies of grizzly bear that once roamed the California wilderness is now extinct. Any grizzlies that would be brought into California would differ in genetic makeup from the state’s original bears.

10,000grizzly bears were killed between 1850 and 1924

In 2014, the advocacy group the Center for Biological Diversity filed petitions asking the Fish and Wildlife Service to recover the bears in more of their historic range in Colorado, Idaho and Utah, said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the center.

But the battle is far from over. The group estimates 8,000 square miles of unpopulated land in the Sierra Nevada could house a small population of grizzlies.

“There are a lot of remote and unpopulated areas in the Sierras; we think there’s potential there,” Miller said. “Grizzlies are a huge part of our history, and they’ve been missing from our ecosystems for almost a century now. It would be pretty amazing to have them back.”

Last summer, Miller’s group created an online petition and a Twitter campaign calling on the California Fish and Game Commission to consider options to reintroduce grizzlies in California’s Sierra Nevada. The document has garnered about 12,500 signatures, with a few more trickling in each day.

It’s a more complicated issue than most people realize, Alagona said. The areas the grizzly once loved in California are now populated with humans – nearly 40 million of them. If the bears were to come back, they’d be put in the outskirts of national parks, areas that are remote, but not necessarily fruitful due to their high altitudes and long winters, he said.

Not to mention that grizzlies are larger than black bears and can be intimidating to people. Grizzly bears are not aggressive predators and generally avoid humans. The National Park Service estimates that the chances of being injured by a bear while visiting Yellowstone are 1 in 2.2 million.

“There are a lot of good reasons not to reintegrate the grizzly in California,” Alagona said. “Some people would say if there’s a possibility anyone would be injured or killed, that human life has to be more valuable.”

California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Andrew Hughan also cited the danger to people. “(Grizzlies) have no fear, and they are full-on predators,” he said. “Putting that kind of predator in a state with 38 million people is just not sound science. The threat to campers and hikers is very high.”

For now, Californians can educate themselves on the grizzly bear’s story by visiting “The Bear in Mind” exhibit, on display at the California Museum until June 19.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola