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Should Grizzly Bears Be Revived in California?

Grizzly Bear Family

Story at-a-glance -

  • The grizzly bear was listed as endangered in 1975. Populations in North America have plummeted from a high of 100,000 to fewer than 2,000 bears, residing in only 4 percent of their natural range in the lower 48 states
  • At one time there were 10,000 grizzlies in California alone, but no grizzly has been spotted in that state since 1924
  • A conservation organization recently submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that identifies 110,000 square miles of potential grizzly bear habitat in 5 western states, including the Sierra Nevada in California. The group is petitioning the Service to step up their grizzly recovery efforts
  • Some Californians believe reintroducing grizzly bears in that densely populated state is a dangerous proposition

By Dr. Becker

The grizzly bear has been an endangered species since 1975. Estimates are that up to 100,000 grizzlies once ranged throughout western North America, from the high Arctic to Mexico, and from the California coast to the Great Plains. These days, fewer than 2,000 bears remain, residing in only 4 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states.

If you want to spot a grizzly, you’ll need to visit Alaska, or Yellowstone or Glacier National Park.

No Grizzly Bear Has Been Sighted in California in Over 90 Years

At one time there may have been as many as 10,000 grizzlies roaming California alone, but the last one was killed in 1922. No grizzly bears have been sighted in the state since 1924.

The California grizzly was a magnificent animal, weighing from 1,200 to 2,200 pounds. The mild California climate and plentiful food supply meant the bears didn’t need to hibernate, which accounted for their massive size. Unfortunately, the land the bears inhabited was also highly desirable to ranchers and farmers, who drove the bears out. And since grizzlies are more likely to stand their ground against humans than other bear species, they made easy targets.

Over the years, various organizations have expressed interest in bringing grizzlies back to California, just as bison, elk, and wolves have been reintroduced in areas they were once removed from. A major challenge to any reintroduction plan is that the bears’ preferred habitat was the coast and central valley of California, which are now densely populated areas with only fragments remaining of suitable grizzly habitat. This is potentially a recipe for disaster since grizzlies, especially females with cubs, can be very aggressive toward humans.

Over 100,000 Square Miles in Western U.S. Identified as Potential Grizzly Habitat

In June 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to significantly expand its plans for recovering grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act, including returning the bears to many areas of the American West.1

Specifically, the petition identifies over 100,000 square miles of potential grizzly habitat in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and California’s Sierra Nevada. According to the Center:

“Returning bears to some or all of these areas is a crucial step toward recovering them under the Endangered Species Act and could potentially triple the grizzly bear population in the lower 48, from a meager 1,500 to 1,800 today to as many as 6,000.”2

The Center maintains that the USFWS has taken a fragmented approach to the recovery of grizzly bears, developing recovery strategies for only six populations, living in a relatively small portion of the bears’ range. And while there’s been some success in improving the health of bears at Yellowstone and Glacier, all remaining populations are isolated. The Center states:

“The science is clear that, if we’re serious about recovering grizzly bears, we need more populations around the West, and more connections between them, so they don’t fall prey to inbreeding and so they have a chance of adapting to a warming world. If we want these incredible bears around for centuries to come, we’ve still got a lot of work left to do.”

Is California Ready for the Return of the Grizzly Bear?

Some Californians are uncomfortable with the prospect of grizzly bears once again roaming the state.

“As an avid hiker with an appreciation for, and healthy fear of, bears, this news both thrilled and alarmed me,” said Mariel Garza of the Sacramento Bee. “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.”3

Comparing the reintroduction of wolves to grizzlies, an LA Times editorial observes that:

“Grizzlies are a different story. Though their eradication in California remains one of the state's shames, it's far from clear that they have a natural place here any longer. They have not made their way close to California on their own. Yellowstone National Park and its surroundings have fewer people living in much larger territories. California has more than 10 times the human population than it did when the last wild grizzly died. Its parks and forests in the Sierra Nevada are heavily visited, and grizzlies can be unpredictable in the wild. Female grizzlies are particularly aggressive when a person comes within a certain distance of her cubs.”4

My hope is that conservationists and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can reintroduce grizzlies into greater portions of their natural range in a way that will be non-threatening to both humans and bears.