One of the special privileges of living in the Greater Yellowstone Region is seeing grizzly bears. In the fall, they are hungry preparing for hibernation. Rosehips, chokecherries and limber pine nuts lure them nearer to our homes, where they forage mainly at night to avoid people. In the early spring, when they emerge from their dens, young sprouts in the local pasture is roughage for their systems.
The presence of grizzlies makes a difference when I am hiking. I see their large tracks or fresh scat and remember to stay alert, awake, and aware. I carry my bear spray ‘weapon’, which I’ve never used on a bear, but have used on a bison, and it saved my life.
Yet this rarity of wildness in our modern world carries with it great responsibility. If I want to live, work, and enjoy this last remaining wild place in our country (and also one of the last intact temperate ecosystems in the entire world), then I, like my cousin the grizzly, must make sacrifices and accommodations–small yet important and life saving for the bear. Special garbage cans; no bird feeders; Bar-B-Qing precautions; and most importantly, a tolerance for wildness. The Great Bear himself has been accommodating us humans for centuries, and mostly paying for it with his life.
Probably our best lesson in grizzly history comes from California, where the bear adorns their state flag. And the very best historical account of the Great State’s grizzlies is California Grizzly by Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis Jr. Storer painstakingly poured through every historical documented account of grizzly bears back to the Spanish Missions. He collects them together into an easily readable book first published in the 1950s. My paperback edition has a wonderful foreword by Rick Bass. I would say the only section not fully accurate is ‘Habits of California Grizzlies’, which includes erroneous data such as grizzlies being able to give birth at two or three years of age. Bringing grizzlies back from the brink here in Yellowstone has yielded much new data.
It’s unknown how many grizzlies were in California before the Spanish arrived and brought their cattle in the early 1700s. But Storer estimates California may have had as many as 10,000 bears in the early to mid-1800’s. California during Spanish rule was a different place than when American settlers came out during the gold rush.
During the Spanish period, not more than thirty such [land] grants were made; but after Mexico threw off her allegiance to the crown, the lavish generosity of the new provincial government brought some eight million acres into the possession of about eight hundred grantees. Each rancho, an empire unto itself, grazed thousands of cattle, sheep, and horses; supported hundreds of Indian servants, and was an economically independent, self-sustaining community.
In addition to cattle, wild horses brought in by the Spanish were so numerous that there were recorded herds twenty miles long. This overpopulation of horses depleted the range for livestock so thousands were killed, sometimes driven over cliffs or lanced by vaqueros. There were frequent slaughters of livestock during severe droughts, as well as natural deaths in these enormous herds. Missions and ranches had private butchering grounds, where only the choice meats were taken and the rest thrown in large piles. Grizzlies came at night to the ravines near the slaughter-corrals. Storer reports that in 1834 the missionaries, who anticipated secularization, disposed of 100,000 cattle just for their tallow and hides, leaving the rest for wild animals.
This abundant new and easy source of protein is what fueled an accelerated bear population growth, so by the time early Americans began arriving, grizzly bears were commonly seen in large numbers foraging together.
In January, 1827, Duhaut-Cilly wrote that ‘bears are very common in the environs; and without going farther than five or six leagues [a league is about 3.5 miles] from San Francisco, they are often seen in herds”
George C. Yount, among the first American pioneers in California, arriving in February 1831 [of Yountville fame in Northern California] …said “they are every where–upon the plains, in the valleys, and on the mountains…so that I have often killed as many as five or six in one day, and it was not unusual to see fifty or sixty within the twenty-four hours.”
John Bidwell, in the Sacramento Valley in 1841, saw sixteen in one drove and said that “grizzly bear were almost an hourly sight, in the vicinity of the streams, and it was not uncommon to see thirty to forty a day”
While bears were a problem for the Spanish in the 1700s when trying to grow their herds, by the early 1800s cattle, sheep and horses were sculpturing every hill in the coastal region. The Spanish now viewed these lands as a playground, and grizzlies as part of a new sport.They roped grizzlies for bear-bull fights (another chapter in the book which is fascinating yet hard to read). These animal fights were even commonly conducted right after church in stoutly built arenas. But although the Spanish engaged in this cruel entertainment, California was underpopulated and grizzlies benefited from the increased food supply. When gold was discovered in 1849, a spectacular invasion of Americans came, and grizzlies were now doomed. In the span of just 25 years after California became a state in 1850, most all the grizzlies were gone. A few stragglers remained until early 1900s.
Storer includes so many fascinating facts about the bear in California. One would suspect that grizzlies rarely hibernated in that warm climate. Although no one was keeping scientific records, grizzlies were seen year-round except in the high Sierras, as evidenced from that above quote in January by Duhaut-Cilly. Probably females denned for part of the winter in order to give birth to their helpless newborns. Before white men cleared the land, grizzlies inhabited dense growths of trees, vines, and cattails that bordered lowland rivers and creeks. They pastured in tall grasses and clovers in the spring and ate acorns in the fall. Along the entire coast, grizzlies foraged on the continuous supply of marine animals that washed ashore, supplementing with berries from manzanita bushes that grew nearby. Tall manzanita thickets were common places for grizzlies to shelter, while place names remain as ghostly evidence such as Bear Valley, Big Bear, or Oso Rio.
What is to be learned from California–a land so rich and blessed with near perfect climate, where once grizzlies freely roamed? It demonstrates how quickly a large population of top predators can be extirpated; or how a dense, rapid growth in human population spells demise for the great bear; how abundant human food waste leads to habituated bears. And reading through the entire account in this book reminds me that Europeans have a very dark history when it comes to wildlife. The wanton slaughter and intolerance for grizzlies is still evident today when we see signs such as this one which seem to have one purpose in mind, without any appreciation nor feeling for the animal itself:
With a bit of mindfulness, we can enter fully into a new legacy, one that values wildness and wilderness, preserves vast lands for top predators like the Great Bear, sees the worth of connectivity between public and private lands, and makes good choices as to how we live with grizzlies in our midst. This is the future I envision for our country and it’s wonderful heritage of wildlife.