A New Move to Bring the Grizzly Bear Back to California

Conservationists petition the government to ensure the iconic species’ survival as climate change accelerates.

(Photo: Universal Education/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Jun 20, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

When California insurgents revolted against Mexican rule on June 14, 1846, they raised a rebel banner emblazoned with the fierce and majestic grizzly, declaring the founding of the Bear Flag Republic. Within 80 years, though, the grizzly, which for millennia had roamed from the beaches of Los Angeles to the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, would be extinct. The last bear to be hunted was shot in 1922, and two years later came the final sighting of a grizzly in California. Today the bear is seen only on the state flag.

Now an environmental group wants to restore America’s top predator to its namesake state by reintroducing the bear to California as well as to Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The grizzly is listed as a threatened species under the United States Endangered Species Act, and in a petition filed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity argued that to ensure the bear’s survival the agency should reintroduce it throughout its historic territory.

“Grizzly bears once ranged throughout most of western North America, from the high Arctic to the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico, and from the coast of California across most of the Great Plains,” Noah Greenwald, CBD’s endangered species director, wrote in the petition.

Grizzlies, thought to number as many as 100,000 in the U.S. at the time of European settlement, had dwindled to fewer than a thousand by 1975, when the bear was added to the endangered species list. Today, between 1,500 and 1,800 grizzlies survive in the continental U.S., mainly in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.

The conservationists argue that the Endangered Species Act obligates the wildlife service to update its plan to recover the grizzly and that the plan should identify areas within the bear’s historic range that could be repopulated, given that its population has increased only marginally over the past 40 years. Worse, climate change threatens the grizzly as warming temperatures in the Rocky Mountains are devastating the whitebark pine tree whose seeds provide a key source of nutrition for the bears, according to the petition.

CBD calculated that some 110,000 square miles of suitable grizzly habitat exists in the Gila Wilderness and the Mogollon Rim in Arizona, the Sierra Nevada in California, the Grand Canyon in Utah, and the Uinta Mountains in Utah. That potential habitat would support a population of 4,000 to 6,000 grizzlies by CBD’s estimate.

“Such a goal would restore these magnificent animals to a closer proximity of their historic range in the western conterminous U.S.,” Greenwald wrote.

Increasingly, scientists recognize that it is important to recover endangered wildlife not to just preserve an iconic symbol of a lost wilderness but also to restore complex ecosystems dependent on top predators to keep other species in check.

“Grizzlies accelerate geomorphic processes, enrich soils, enhance biodiversity, regulate prey populations, and transport nutrients from marine to terrestrial systems,” according to the CBD petition.

Even if the wildlife service created such a recovery plan, however, it would not be obligated to reintroduce the grizzly to new areas, Greenwald said in an email.

Also unknown is the reaction of Californians and residents of other Western states to the prospect of the grizzly’s return. The reintroduction of the gray wolf to the West unleashed years of bitter battles between conservationists and ranchers. What would be the response to the presence of 1,000-pound predators in a populous state like California?

“I think there would be some opposition, particularly from livestock interests,” said Greenwald. “But by and large, grizzly bears are revered, and as with wolves, I would expect a majority would be in favor of having bears back in their states.”