Frontier myth vilified the California grizzly. Science tells a new story.


In April 1924, a road crew was working in Sequoia National Park, near the spectacular granite dome of Moro Rock, when a large shape emerged from the woods. These workers had previously been stationed with the Park Service at Yellowstone, and they were familiar with the animal that walked by their camp. In their report, they noted its cinnamon-colored fur and the prominent hump on its back, both telltale signs of a grizzly bear.

A century later, that report remains, in most experts’ eyes, the last credible sighting of a grizzly in California. An animal that had once numbered as many as 10,000 in the state, living in almost all its varied ecosystems and gracing its state flag, had been hunted to local extinction.

The grizzly, a subspecies of brown bear, has long held a place in mainstream American myth as a dangerous, even bloodthirsty creature. Its scientific name, Ursus arctos horribilis, means “the horrible bear.” But that image is being challenged by a new set of studies that combine modern biochemical analysis, historical research and Indigenous knowledge to bring the story of the California grizzly from fiction to fact.

In January, a team of experts led by University of California at Santa Barbara ecologist Alexis Mychajliw published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B about the diet of the California grizzly bear and how that influenced its extinction. The results challenge virtually every aspect of the bear’s established story.

“Pretty much everything that I thought I knew about these animals turned out to be wrong,” said Peter Alagona, an ecologist and historian at UCSB and co-author of the study.

The myth of ‘the horrible bear’

Much of the grizzly bear’s long-standing narrative comes from stories, artwork and early photographs depicting California grizzlies as huge in size and aggressive in nature. Many of these reports, which found wide readership in newspapers elsewhere in the West and in the cities back East, were written by what Alagona calls the Californian influencers of their time.

“They were trying to get rich and famous by marketing themselves as these icons of the fading frontier,” Alagona said. “A lot of the historical sources that we have about grizzlies are actually not about grizzlies. They’re about this weird Victorian 19th-century celebrity culture.”

The team of ecologists, historians and archivists compared the image of California grizzlies from these frontier reports to harder data in the form of bear bones from museum collections all over the state.

The frontier myth had painted the California bears as larger than grizzlies elsewhere in the country, but the bone analysis revealed that they were the same size and weight, about 6 feet long and 440 pounds for the average adult.

In an even larger blow to the popular story of the vicious grizzly, the bones showed that before 1542, when the first Europeans arrived, the bears were only getting about 10 percent of their diet from preying on land animals. They were primarily herbivores, surviving on a varied diet of acorns, roots, berries, fish and occasionally larger prey such as deer.

As European-style farming and ranching began to dominate the landscape, grizzlies became more like the stories those frontier influencers were telling about them. The percentage of meat in their diet rose to about 25 percent, probably in large part because of the relative ease of catching a fenced-in cow or sheep compared to a wild elk.

Colonialism forced so many changes on the California landscape so quickly, affecting every species that the bears ate and interacted with, that the exact cause of this change will be difficult to ever fully understand.

Still, grizzlies were never as vicious or purely predatory as the stories made them out to be. The narrative of the huge killer bear instead fed a larger settler story of a landscape — and a people — that could not coexist with the settlers themselves. And that story became a disaster for more than just bears.

Genocide, survival and restoration

Although we will never have exact numbers, experts agree that hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people were living in what is now California before White settlers arrived. One frequently cited estimate puts the population at 340,000.

By 1900, that number had been slashed by more than 95 percent to around 16,000 surviving tribal members throughout the state. Eliminating the bear and the vast majority of California’s Indigenous people can be seen as parts of the same concerted effort to replace one landscape — and one set of stories — with another.

“The annihilation of the California grizzly bear was part of a much larger campaign of annihilation,” Alagona said. “I think it’s clear that what happened in California meets the legal definition of a genocide. But in a way, it was even more than that, because these were not just attempts to eliminate groups of people. These were attempts to destroy an entire world.”

Along with this almost complete destruction of the region’s Indigenous people, with their dozens of language groups and hundreds of communities and tribes, came a wholesale change in how the land was managed. For thousands of years, people had used cultural fire to maintain wildlife habitat and food supplies over large swaths of the region. Relationships and practices that had developed over millennia were replaced, in just decades, by European systems of agriculture and land management with no history or connection to the landscapes of the West Coast.

But even after devastating outbreaks of introduced disease and a focused campaign of violence over centuries, Indigenous people remain today in California, and the descendants of the people who lived alongside bears for thousands of years are now helping researchers understand that relationship, and how it might inform the grizzly’s future.

“We know the abundance that the southern end of the valley had,” said Octavio Escobedo III, chairman of the Tejon Indian Tribe, which now includes over 1,200 members in the Bakersfield and Kern County area of Southern California. “We know that the bear was revered here, especially by the Tejon people.”

According to Escobedo, the Tejon relationship with bears was far from the fearful and adversarial one taken up by White settlers. He recounts oral histories of bear cubs being given as gifts to neighboring tribal leaders. Though most large animals would be hunted for sustenance, Escobedo said, his people did not eat grizzlies.

“We coexisted in peace together here,” he added. “As long as we respected their space and they respected our space, there was almost a symbiotic relationship there between the Indigenous people and the grizzly.”

Farther north, the Yurok people also had a long history of coexistence with grizzlies. Tiana Williams-Claussen, director of the Yurok Tribe’s wildlife department, says that even their homes were designed with the bears in mind.

“We actually built our houses specifically with a small round doorway that they were too big to get through, so that you wouldn’t find them snacking on your salmon in the middle of the night,” she said.

Now the idea of reintroducing grizzlies to California, once an impossible dream, is gaining momentum. Roughly 95 percent of U.S. brown bears live in Alaska. There is also a stable population in and around Yellowstone National Park, and rare sightings in northern Montana, Idaho and Washington state. The bears are listed as threatened in the Lower 48 states.

The Yurok Tribe led the effort to reintroduce another iconic California species once extinct in the wild: the California condor. In 2022, after 16 years of preparation, research and habitat restoration, the first condors in more than a century soared over Yurok land. Williams-Claussen is quick to point out that while there are lessons that could be applied from her condor work, grizzlies are a very different species.

“Even though the tribe is committed to these sorts of restorations, we know that it has to be done in community to have any chance of success,” she said. “And I think that’s going to be doubly true of a species that’s more controversial, like the grizzly bear.”

Everyone involved with the grizzly research team agrees that the process, if it ever moves forward, will be a long one.

“Whether a person thinks that grizzlies should be reintroduced to California or whether they think that they should not, I still think it’s a productive conversation to have,” said Andrea Adams, a UCSB ecologist and co-author of the paper. “It’s bringing all of these things to light: about extinction being real, about carnivores being persecuted, about California’s history.”

For his part, Escobedo is cautiously optimistic about the early stages of a reintroduction plan.

“I think it’s a wonderful concept,” he said. “I don’t know if the general California resident is ready for those conversations, but it starts with some education, and I think that’s where we’re at right now.”

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