Editorial: Is California up for a grizzly homecoming? That’s a reality that bites

The idea that the grizzly bear might someday roam California’s Sierra Nevada again warms the heart a little. Such a homecoming would be a testament to our evolution from frightened primates to intelligent, beneficent beings able to live in peace with all of God’s creatures.

But like so many romantic notions, the reality, well, it’s a bear.

That’s what wildlife officials will have to wrestle with as they review a serious proposal to expand the recovery zones for Ursus arctos horribilis, also known as the grizzly or brown bear, to include California’s mountains.

The Ursus arctos californicus (the state’s subspecies) used to inhabit much of California, and well into Baja California in Mexico. There’s a reason the brown bear is on the state flag. But the great beasts were hunted to extinction – the last known one killed in Tulare County in 1922.

The biggest question for wildlife officials is whether a return makes sense for both the grizzly and for Californians. We’re not convinced it does. To a lesser extent, that question will have to be answered about the three other wilderness areas in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah suggested in the proposal by the Center for Biological Diversity.

While it’s never a bad idea to re-evaluate the state of our country’s natural resources, this is one proposal that has a number of strikes against it – starting with a healthy human fear of a creature that stands 8 feet tall and will attack a hapless hiker just for getting in stone-throwing distance from a cub.

For the good of the world, that fear could be overcome. But there’s no compelling proof it is necessary.

The proposal by CBD, submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June, asks that the bears be restored to as much of their historic habitat as possible. The group claims the federal government’s approach to grizzly recovery in the lower 48 states puts their long-term survival at risk.

Most of the 1,500 to 1,800 grizzly bears in the continental U.S. are concentrated in two geographic islands around Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. If something happens to the livability of one of those islands – a particular worry with climate change – it could wipe out a significant portion of the country’s grizzly population.

But can we restate the “1,500 to 1,800” part? When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put grizzlies on the threatened species list in 1975 there were maybe half that many. And Yellowstone bears in particular have bounced back. Forty years ago there were maybe 136 grizzly bears in and around the park; now there are more than 700. It’s such a success story that Yellowstone grizzlies are expected to be removed from the endangered species list later this year.

Though it is still rare that grizzlies kill humans, it does happen about once a year, according to the National Park Service. But that could be because of their limited range. Stocking up the Sierra Nevada with a bear roughly twice as large as the state’s already problematic black bear seems like a particularly dangerous proposition when the actual threat to grizzlies is only hypothetical.

Even if the risk to grizzlies is real, California might no longer be suitable for the grizzly; it’s not the same state as it was 100 years ago.

In 1920, there were about 3.4 million people in the Golden State, most of them concentrated around the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Now there are 38 million of us – and we have sprawled to great extremes into even mountainous land that was once inaccessible.

Three national parks, Yosemite, Kings and Sequoia, which would be prime brown bear location spots, are bustling cities as well.

According to the National Park Service, Yosemite drew 3.7 million visitors in 2013, about as many people who live in the city of Los Angeles, to its 750,000 acres. That’s a tight squeeze considering the relative roominess of the modern day grizzly bear central, Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is three times the size of Yosemite – 2.2 million acres – but has fewer annual visitors than Yosemite, just 3.1 million last year.

Plus, Yosemite and the state already have a goodly number of black bears, a much smaller grizzly cousin.

It is a pleasant thought that, if we can cohabit with coyotes, mountain lions and wolves, maybe we can learn to live with grizzlies, too. A nice idea – if the reality doesn’t bite.