By James Hale:
It was just a short time ago that the California Grizzly (Ursus horribilis californicus) was a dominant feature of the fauna of California. The grizzly was common to abundant throughout the state in lowlands, foothills and the western Sierra, being absent only in the deserts. Naturalists Tracey Storer and Lloyd Tevis found records of grizzlies in nearly every habitat. The California grizzly appears to have been unusually gregarious. In September 1846, John C. Fremontʼs expedition party traveling in the Salinas
Valley came upon a number of grizzlies in the oak woodlands. The party killed twelve and others escaped. A settler in the Napa Valley area in 1831 said one could see as many as sixty bears in a day. Settler John Watson saw three hundred grizzlies in a single valley in the Santa Cruz mountains in the 1860ʼ s. Local histories state that grizzlies were numerous in the Berkeley hills and east bay area. Names of nearby places such as Grizzly Peak and Bear Creek attest to the fact. Storer and Tevis suggest the statewide population for the California grizzly was perhaps close to 10,000 based on their extensive research. As late as 1850 grizzlies still wandered on the outskirts of San Francisco. The golden bear was so widespread in Old California that it earned a place on the state flag.
Several features set the California grizzly apart from other bears, except their close relatives, the brown bears and other grizzlies. The shoulder hump, the long front claws, the color of the pelage, and the structure of the skull and teeth are diagnostic and species specific. The hump results from the size and placement of the muscle mass above the shoulder blades. The front claws are longer, slightly curved, heavier and broader than in other bears. They are an adaptation for their omnivorous diet in digging for bulbs, roots, rodents, invertebrates and insect larvae. Carrion was a perennial favorite. One of the earliest accounts for the California grizzly was by the Spanish explorer Vizcaino, who in 1602 observed grizzlies scavenging beached whales in Monterey. The abundance and diversity of oaks provided a seasonal bounty of acorns for the large numbers of huge bears. It is estimated they could gain several pounds a day from this rich resource. I find it interesting to note that the introduced wild boar appears to have reoccupied the ecological niche that was vacated by the extirpated California grizzly.
The pelage of the California grizzly was quite varied in color, more than that of most other mammals, ranging from gray to brown, yellowish or golden, red, silvery, or white-patched, and often with multicolored long hairs or “grizzled” whitish tips. The annual molt, which came in late summer or autumn, gave the animal a new coat with more insulation for the winter and hibernation, although it’s presumed grizzlies remained active during the winter throughout most of the state. The largest bears in the lower forty-eight states were found in California until just after 1900. California grizzlies averaged six hundred pounds with some individuals reaching enormous size. A mammoth male bear came out of the San Onofre Canyon, in the low, coastal Santa Ana Range, that weighed in at one thousand four hundred pounds. This was larger than the great buffalo-killing grizzlies of the Plains states and equaled only by the largest Kenai Peninsula brown bears of Alaska. In 1873, John Lang shot the bear the locals called “the California King” in Soledad Canyon, on the northern flank of the San Gabriel Mountains. It was said to tip the scales at an incredible two thousand two hundred pounds. Its feet were sixteen and a half inches long with over four inch claws.
Equally gargantuan bears were found throughout the state as far north as the San Francisco Bay area. Many were more than seven feet from nose to tail and over ten feet tall. Grizzlies were somewhat smaller in the north part of the state and southern Sierra Nevada. Females were often half the bulk of the giant males.
From the Mission Period through the Gold Rush, many persons in California (padres, vaqueros, hunters, trappers, miners, farmers and others met grizzlies in various circumstances. One man stands out and is preeminent in the literature on California grizzlies because of the extent and variety of his recorded experience with these bears, John “Grizzly” Adams. Grizzly Adams was unique because he made a regular business out of capturing and dealing in live animals such as grizzlies, mountain lions, smaller carnivores, deer, elk and others. In the spring of 1855, he took his collection of animals to Corral Hollow in eastern Alameda county, where he hunted and lived briefly before traveling throughout the Sierra and state. In 1856 he established the Mountaineer Museum at 143 Clay Street in San Francisco, which later became the Pacific Museum at Kearny and Clay. His trained pet California grizzly and hunting companion, “Ben Franklin” was constantly at his side.
The natural ferocity and superstitions associated with the California grizzly inspired terror among the Native Americans. The respect the Indians had for the grizzly was reflected in the reluctance for many tribes to trap or hunt them. Throughout most of California there were three specialized classes of shamans: bear shamans, rattlesnake shamans, and rain shamans; of these the first was the most varied in its manifestations and the most extraordinary. The Spaniards and early American settlers had equal respect for the California grizzly, however conflicts with the bears combined with their greater ability to kill them with large steel traps, strychnine and in later years the repeating rifle sealed the fate of the grizzly.
As the Spanish settlers established the cattle industry in the last part of the 18th century, the bear was offered a great new food supply. The herds of cattle proliferated. Horses became so numerous that they threatened the range and were killed by the thousands. Herds were driven into the sea at Monterey in 1810. Storer suggests that with so many live and dead bodies of domestic animals to be had without effort, grizzlies multiplied as they never had before. The California grizzly was hunted extensively from the Mission Period through the early American Period. The Spaniards roped grizzlies for “sport and entertainment”, and pitted them against bulls in arenas. The California grizzly bear had been around for
more than a million years by the Gold Rush. As thousands of pioneers poured into the state, slaughter of the bears began in earnest. Grizzlies were extirpated from the San Francisco Bay area by the 1880ʼs.
There had been 10,000 California grizzlies, but in less than 150 years by the 1920ʼs, the once dangerous grizzly was extinct. The last California grizzly was killed in Tulare County in 1922.
James M. Hale is a wildlife biologist and Vice Chair of the Contra Costa County Fish & Wildlife Committee.