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The return of the extinct California Grizzly Bear?
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

You’ve probably never heard of Noah Greenwald. He’s an environmentalist with a passion for wildlife that makes him the California Grizzly Bear’s best friend.

The bear that graces the California State Flag went extinct some 30 years before it became the official animal of the Golden State in 1953. The last known California Grizzly Bear was sighted by a road crew in Sequoia National Park in 1924. 

Greenwald has dedicated a good deal of energy to advocating the return of the California Grizzly Bear to the Golden State. The United States Fish & Wildlife Service – not exactly an anti-environmental federal bureaucracy – nixed the idea of re-introducing grizzly bears per se to California. The Center for Biological Diversity believes the Sierra roughly from Yosemite National Park in the north to a point south of Mt. Whitney could support 500 grizzly bears. The California Legislature has been cold to the idea.

There are roughly 1,500 grizzly bears left today in the continental United States, primarily in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. At one time scientists estimate 10,000 California Grizzly Bears roamed virtually all of the land area that is today the Golden States except for the Mojave Desert. California Grizzly Bears along the coast were the biggest, pushing 1,000 pounds and ranging up to 10 feet tall on their hind legs. The reason for their size was they did not hibernate. By comparison grizzly bears today in the three lower states where they exist average about 400 pounds.

Adult male Black Bears in California average about 190 pounds. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are between 25,000 and 30,000 Black Bears on 52,000 acres in California.

Some scientists believe “Monarch” – the only know California Grizzly Bear that was preserved by taxidermy and resides in a temperate controlled room at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco – has enough intact DNA that could be extracted that when wedded with genetic engineering and cloning could bring the California Grizzly Bear back.

It’s a long shot that is likely not to get far due to initial reactions most have to the overall species of big black bears. Grizzly bears tend to be more aggressive and much bigger than relatively timid brown bears. 

I am not an expert on grizzly bears or brown bears but I do hike and have done so at least 50 times along established trails in the area where the Center for Biological Diversity advocates re-introducing Grizzly Bears. During that time I’ve come across two black bears. Each time they were in full gallop chasing deer. Once it was driving back on a one-lane road from the starting point I used to hike El Capitan from the north. The other was hiking below Mono Pass on the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park. The bear and two deer that it was pursuing came within about 80 feet of where I had stopped.

The only other time I encountered a black bear where it actually moved toward me in a somewhat threatening manner I was on a road bicycle heading up to Spooner Summit on Highway 50 out of Carson City. My cycling partner at the time – Gary Pogue – was ahead of me and startled the bear some 10 feet away from him that had just emerged from trees as he passed it along the highway shoulder. It turned toward me. That’s when I saw two cubs behind it. The bear obviously was trying to cross the four-lane road and was in a state of stress. It suddenly started moving and picking up speed heading downhill toward me. At about the same time truckers passing by hit their air horns. The bear was easily within 50 feet of me before it got scared off by the horns and headed back into the woods.

The area that they want to introduce grizzly bears into I’d venture to say would create no worse of an issue for safety than mountain lions.

I’ve only encountered one mountain lion and that was hiking up an unfamiliar Death Valley canyon with a companion when we noticed the big cat 100 or so feet above us walking along the edge. Given we were not familiar with the canyon and did not know if the gap between the edge and floor would eventually make it a do-able maneuver for the mountain lion to cover, we simply turned around and got out of there.

That said the scariest moment I ever had hiking was on the way to Towne Peak at 7,287 feet in Death Valley. I was just over a mile from my goal when I came across fresh mountain lion tracks in snow on a rock-covered plateau. If you could see the terrain you’d understand why that freaked me out. I thought about the time – it was 1 p.m. in late November – and figured I’d be hitting darkness on the way back if I went all the way to the peak. It was 48 degrees and the wind was miserable, making being on the alert for a mountain lion challenging. I simply turned around and reduced my odds of an encounter.

The bottom line is those venturing into areas with wild animals have a responsibility to act responsible and to understand the risks.

What should drive whether grizzly bears are re-introduced in California is whether it makes sense for the current ecological system and not potential attacks on humans opting to enter the wilderness.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.