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Is California Ready For The Grizzly Bear, Again?

Two grizzly bears playing at the Pocatello Zoo in Idaho.

At one time there were over 10,000 grizzly bears in California, but people’s fear of the enormous animal drove the bears to extinction. The last California grizzly bear was shot in Tulare County in 1924. One group would like to see the bears thrive again. But as Valley Public Radio’s Ezra David Romero reports not everyone thinks the idea is a good one..

The grizzly bear that roamed California less than 100 years ago didn’t just call the heights of the Sierra Nevada home. Wildlife Biologist Evan King and I are at the KaweahOaks Preserve just a few miles outside Visalia, a city of 130,000 people.

"Let's be real about it. It's on the state flag. It's very iconic to the state yet it hasn't been in California since 1924 when the last one was shot."

“Areas where the native species of the grizzly bear lived in California was on the valley floor, coastal regions, grass lands, exactly where we’re at,” says King.

The preserve is supposed to resemble what Central California looked like before humans introduced agriculture into the ecosystem. It’s lined with oak trees, wild grapevines, and willow thickets. The grey fox and the great horned owl call it home. But before the California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist and I could explore the preserve, he got a call.

“We just received a phone call about a bear that was located near a school,” King says. "We’re going to go assess the situation and see if it’s a candidate for relocation.”

King invited me to tag along with him to the tiny community ofLemon Cove. This foothill area is prime habitat for black bears.

When we arrived the black bear was asleep in an oak tree on a small backyard farm with chickens, dogs and vegetables. Game Warden Brian Newell and another warden found the 150 pound bear after receiving multiple calls.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
There are over 30,000 black bears in California alone. Drought has caused many of them to lower elevations to find food.

“Underneath the tree here they had a dog,” Newell says. “So the bear obviously went up the tree right next to the dog. I think he’s just exhausted.”

Because the black bear decided to hang out 500 feet from a school and near a major highway, King and his counterparts decided to relocate the bear. King pulls out his tranquilizer gun and shoots the bear in the tree. The bear huffs a little as the tranquilizer puts the animal to sleep. A moment later the bear fell out of the tree.

“I think he landed pretty good, I think he landed really good,” says King.

"Moving grizzly bears around is not a trivial matter. One has to understand that the place you're moving them to has sufficient space."

King and his crew tagged the bear, blindfolded it and strapped its feet together before hoisting into the bed of his truck to relocate it. But just imagine if we’d trapped a grizzly bear. King says some grizzlies grow to over 2,000 pounds. Even a small grizzly can be two to three times the size of an average black bear.

“In 1925 with 4.5 million people in the state bears were having issues interacting with humans,” King says. “Now with 38 million people the problems would be immense.”

King says the bear is at the top of the food chain and it knows it. But even still the Center for Biological Diversity would like to see the grizzly introduced back into California. The group says there’s 8,000 miles of uninhabited Sierra Nevada the bear could call home. Noah Greenwaldis the endangered species director for the organization.

“California has a lot of promise for grizzly bears,” Greenwald says. “Let’s be real about it, it’s on the state flag. It’s very iconic to the state yet it hasn’t been in California since 1924 when the last one was shot.”

The group submitted a petitionin 2014 to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to bring the bears back. The idea was rejected; the department says they want to focus on non-extinct animals and recovery areas.  The group is hoping to gather enough new signatures to appeal the rejection next year.

Credit Center for Biological Diversity
Center for Biological Diversity

“I think it would be a substantial draw for people to come to California to see grizzly bears,” Greenwald says. “And it’s a dream of ours and people across California.”

CDFW Wildlife Biologist Marc Kenyon likes the idea, but doesn’t think the California of today can sustain the animal.  

“As far as grizzly bears are concerned, while I think there might be places in certain areas,” Kenyon says. “I’m not sure if our people are ready for it.”

Credit Center for Biological Diversity
At one point there were as many as 100,000 grizzly bears in western North America. Today there are less than 2,000.

The big problem Kenyon notes is that grizzly bears have a home range of 200 miles. Bears would roam around the entire state. Kenyon says the grizzly wouldn’t have a chance.

“I believe they would come and search of food and resources,” Kenyon says. “And that’s going to put them right where we humans like to live.  That’s in my opinion it’s a recipe for disaster.”

The other issue is there are no living California grizzly bears. A subspecies from another part of the country would have to be caught and then released in California. US Forest Service Grizzly Bear Biologist Chris Servheen thinks the idea is bad altogether.

“We don’t have a lot of spare grizzly bears,” Servheen says. “Second of all moving grizzly bears around is not a trivial matter. One has to understand that the place you’re moving them to has sufficient space.”

He also says there needs to be at least 200 grizzlies in California for a healthy population of the bears.

Back in Tulare County the crew and I have driven up near the Sequoia National Forest. The black bear we caught is waking up. They lift it out of the bed and cover it with a blanket. We wait about twenty minutes for the bear to come out of its slumber.

“There he goes; he’s going to do just fine,” King says. “He’s going to be a little groggy for about an hour, but he’s up and walking.”

This is the second black bear King trapped this week. He says if people are afraid of this relatively docile species, then a grizzly bear would evoke terror in Californians.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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