Grizzly’s return to California’s Sierra?

Grizzly bear photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Grizzly bear photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As the keeper of a blog about the western U.S., West-centric would be remiss to ignore the recent hubbub over a proposal to reintroduce grizzly bears to California’s Sierra Nevada, among other spots in the West. I don’t have a strong opinion either way. Frankly, I think it would be kind of cool to have another apex predator in the state, and boy would it clear out the most popular trails…in a big way!

However, what I’d like to say to the Center for Biological Diversity, which came up with the plan, is….really? It’s such an outrageous idea that I frankly think it’s just a way for the nonprofit conservation group to draw attention to U.S. Fish & Wildlife’s recovery plan for the grizz, which the Center thinks isn’t doing enough to protect the bears and expand their range.

Grizz sticker

Yes, grizzlies were abundant in California at one time — some estimate as many as 10,000 in the state’s early days — and the last one was killed in Tulare County in 1922. One still ambles across the state flag.

But the state is far more populated now, with scads of recreation lovers hiking and fishing the Sierra. Can you imagine hiking the John Muir Trail, or fishing the Kern River, and needing to carry bear spray? Or something even more powerful? I did recently see someone on the trail between Horseshoe Lake and McLeod Lake in the Mammoth Lakes basin carrying a bear spray canister, which was odd. Maybe he saw the Center’s proposal and was getting a head start.

The Sierra isn’t the only area of the West where the Center for Biological Diversity hopes to reintroduce ursus arctos horribilis. In its legal petition proposing to return grizzlies to their original range, the group identifies 110,000 square miles of potential grizzly habitat in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Once abundant in those spots, grizzlies were gone by the 1940s.

Current grizzly populations are a fraction of what they once were — from 100,000 in their heyday to a mere 1,500 or so today, and only in five areas: the Yellowstone, Northern Continental Divide, Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk and Northern Cascades ecosystems.

With such shrunken range and fragmented habitat, more clearly needs to be done to protect these magnificent predators. And as admirable as the grizzly proposal is, I just don’t think it’s practical in a place like California. And I don’t know which grizzly species is intended for reintroduction, since the California sub-species ursus californicus, which roamed valleys and foothills rather than high elevations, is extinct.

Anyone who’s spent time in the outdoors in places like Glacier National Park knows what it’s like to hike and fish in grizzly country. Want an investment tip? Bear spray canister companies. You can’t bring them on airplanes, so that canister you bought for a dayhike in Montana or Wyoming is staying behind. And the consequences can be serious: a researcher from Utah in Wyoming’s Wind Rivers was recently killed by a bear, possibly a grizzly.

Wildlife reintroduction is a pretty fascinating topic. Living among large predators like bears and wolves is what makes the West such a special place, after all. But can we all safely co-exist? Interested in joining the conversation? The online forums Yosemite News and High Sierra Topix have both addressed the grizzly issue.

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