Waving the Flag for the Grizzly’s Return to California

The bears were exterminated from the Golden State by 1924. A new campaign hopes to bring them back.
(Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG via Getty Images)
Jul 28, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

The grizzly bear appears on California’s state flag and seal, in ad campaigns, and on countless T-shirts and bumper stickers.

One place grizzly bears do not appear, however, is in California. Oh, they used to live there, but white settlers considered them dangerous predators and hunted them to extinction. The last grizzly bear in the Golden State was killed nearly a century ago.

Now environmental groups want to bring the big bears back. The Center for Biological Diversity this week launched a petition and a Twitter hashtag campaign to persuade the California Fish and Wildlife Commission to consider reintroducing the fabled predators.

“Grizzlies are now in just 4 percent of their historic range in the Lower 48 states,” said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director. “There’s extensive habitat in the West where they could live. These are all places that used to have grizzles and could again.”

One of those places, according to previous research, is California’s Sierra Nevada. Grizzlies could have nearly 8,000 square miles of safe habitat there, far from where they could come into conflict with humans.

“We think bringing them back to the Sierra Nevada would be great for the ecosystem,” Greenwald said. “Bears play an important role. They’ve been found to increase plant diversity through digging and seed transport.”

(Photo: Center for Biological Diversity)

The apex predators also help control the populations of moose and other species, which further boosts plant species the herbivores would otherwise eat. Their salmon-laden poop, meanwhile, fertilizes soil.

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Last year, the center petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—which has been in charge of grizzly recovery efforts since 1975—to add the Sierra Nevada and other regions to the bear’s recovery regions. The agency turned down the request, although last August officials proposed efforts to boost grizzly numbers in the North Cascades in Washington state, which Greenwald credits to activism by the organization Conservation Northwest. That region has about six grizzlies—not exactly a healthy population.

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With no action for California from the federal level, the center has turned to the state itself. It hopes to collect 100,000 signatures on its petition, which it will then deliver to the California Fish and Wildlife Commission. It collected more than 3,000 of those signatures within a few hours of launching its campaign on Monday.

“We’re trying to create a grassroots campaign,” Greenwald said. “If enough people push for California to reintroduce grizzly bears, and California then went to FWS, then in some ways that would make the reintroduction a lot more likely.”

The first step, he said, would be for the state to agree to conduct a feasibility study to make sure the Sierra Nevada region not only had the sufficient space but also enough food to support a growing grizzly population. Another study would be needed to pick the right grizzlies—possibly some from British Columbia—to move to California.

Greenwald said he is hopeful that grizzlies will find themselves a new home in the state that both exterminated them and celebrates them on its flag.

“California is such a great state for wildlife,” he said. “It has really embraced wildlife in a way that some other Western states have not. If California could welcome grizzly bears back, that would be a tremendous step toward accepting some wildness in the world.”