Saturday, May 10, 2008


Ursus arctos along the Katmai coast. Photo by Scott Michael.

The grizzly has been a subject of lore and legend for centuries. When Lewis and Clark made their way across the North American continent, it was the grizzly that made the biggest impression on this band of explorers. Of course, the Native Americans had already developed a special relationship with the grizzly. They revered the great bear and some tribes attributed physical and mystical powers to the beast. For example, In the Koyukon tribe, women were not allowed to touch the meat or hide of the grizzly as its spirit was too powerful for a female to handle. European hunters, trappers and pioneers also encountered the grizzly as they dispersed and settled across the North American wilderness. It wasn’t long before man and bear were butting heads.

California is one of many sad examples demonstrating the outcome of this conflict between man and U. arctos. It is hard to imagine that California was once a haven for the grizzly bear. There are accounts from as early as the 1500’s to as late as the 1900’s that tell of “troupes” or “regiments” of grizzly bears feeding on whale carcasses that were cast-up on California beaches.
When Scotsman John Muir explored Yosemite National Park, there were both black and grizzly bears. In his writings he shares many of his observations on Yosemite’s U. arctos. He described his first encounter with a grizzly (which he refers to as the Sierra bear) as follows:

“In my first interview with the Sierra bear we were frightened and embarrassed, both of us, but the bear was better than mine. When I discovered him, he was standing in a narrow strip of meadow, and I was concealed behind a tree on the side of it. After studying his appearance as he stood at rest, I rushed toward him to frighten him, that I might study his gait in running. But, contrary to all I had heard about the shyness of the bears he did not run at all; and when I stopped short within a few steps from him, as he held his ground in a fighting attitude, my mistake was monstrously plain. I was then put on my good behavior, and never afterward forgot the right manners of the wilderness." Our National Parks (1901)

The last grizzly bear was reportedly killed in California in 1922 – it was shot by a rancher. Isn’t it ironic that the prominent symbol on the State flag of California no longer lives there because of the man-grizzly rivalry?

So why was the grizzly eradicated from the California landscape, as well as over most of their North American range, while the black bear was not? Black bears have done much better, not only in California, but all across North America. There are currently an estimated 800,000 black bears in the lower 48 and only about 1,000 grizzlies (no one really knows for sure how many of either species live on this continent, but these are the expert’s best guesses). In the 1900’s it has been estimated that there were over 100,000 U. arctos in North America. (We will look at why the black bear has been able to co-exist with Homo sapiens in more detail in a future post.)

Copyright (2008) Scott W. Michael

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