Golden Bear

Beyond Living memory

To gain some sort of insight on how Old California “felt” I camped for several weeks in Yellowstone National Park, a place where bears of all sorts still behave in a semi-natural state, a place where I could sketch them in the field -- at a respectful distance with spotting scope -- and watch them interact with the wide landscape. I was lucky to watch many for days on end, albeit as dots from the roadside, and I admit to being on edge when hiking out into their realm. For grizzlies can be dangerous. They seem to think of us as rather flimsy bear cousins that might be invading their optimum feeding spots. And when bears have a territorial tiff it involves standing ten feet tall and biting their opponent’s furry cheek ruffs, with audible tooth clashes and roars echoing across valleys -- humans do not fair well in this situation.

So I gave them my respect, refrained from leaving my picnic strewn about, and soon their fascinating behavior opened up to me.

Back in California, where only the ghosts of grizzlies roam, I visited the local shopping mall near to where I grew up in the East Bay. Decades had passed since I had been there and everything had changed as I walked between ornamental parking lot islands and new cafe chains, dress-for-less stores, and pet supply centers, all architected in some form of modern “Desert Tuscan” style. I stood on ground that I had grown up crossing, the parking lot I learned to drive a car on back when the defunct department stores were long torn out. Only the view of Albany Hill and the bayshore remained somewhat similar to my past memories.

I had always been fascinated by time, the changing floras and faunas of past epochs, evolving landforms, and how the gathered fossils of a place indicate how its appearance is different from today’s. Paleontology was my hobby and chosen topic of study. Not so long ago this landscape had strange animals wandering its shores, and lost communities that we can only speculate about using the slim evidence remaining. I contemplated grizzly bears digging tubers in this plaza ground -- difficult to imagine. But paleoart is a method that helped me imagine these past environments and go back in time to try to learn from the past.

Grizzlies dine on fallen coast live oak acorns in what is now El Cerrito Plaza, Contra Costa County, California. Albany Hill lies in the background and ther Bay beyond. Foreground grasses are California oat grass (Danthonia californica). The bears have been digging pocket gophers up in the foreground. Oil on cotton rag paper.
Red ink on toned ground with a golden shellac varnish layer, the start of the oil painting above.

At my sister Margot’s nursery job one year a while ago, I talked with a volunteer busy potting native plant seedlings.

“All the shopping plazas look alike now,” I commented.

Gordon responded, “Yeah, and I remember playing as a kid in El Cerrito Plaza when it was all fields.”

“Really?” I said.

This was the local mall I had just revisited, trying to project my imagination into its far past. I was caught by surprise as I found a living link to the site’s history, a place I had only known as black-top.

He told us stories of how as a ten-year-old boy in the 1940s he would collect frogs and stickleback fish in the creek that ran through the fields to take home in jars.

“The creek was loaded with polywogs back then,” he said.

I was amazed -- I could actually interact with an extinct landscape through this man’s memories. I asked him questions.

“Were there any wildflowers in the fields?”

“Well,” he answered, “I don’t remember as I was just a kid and didn’t know botany of course. But there were oaks, big oaks.”

He described tall shapely oaks that he thought were Valley oaks as well as Coast live oaks, hung with lichens, and Arroyo willows lining the creek. A low swampy spot existed towards the bay nearby. Margot and I listened to the only oral history we had ever heard of the area.

“They started to build the old mall in the 1950s -- built the parking lot right up to the old creek.”

El Cerrito Plaza today, with Albany Hill covered in Australian blue gum trees.

Armed with this new-found knowledge of the local plaza, I was determined to dig deeper into the past. I went back and “fieldwalked” the area like an archaeologist looking for artefacts. Sure enough there were relicts. An old spreading live oak grew out of the courtyard of a dentist’s office; the creek was still there, running out of a pipe, with houses on the other bank and English ivy lining my side. A few willows held onto their existence. I even found sticklebacks in a pool farther west near the bayshore, freeways arching overhead.

The next phase was to search for empty lots in the surrounding suburbs. Within a mile of the plaza I found relict native plants in weedy squares of property between houses: California poppies, a small lupine, and bunches of California oatgrass. A rare coastal Valley oak towered out of a backyard residence to the south in Berkeley. The library contained old photographs of the town that helped to show how the area was once a nearly treeless grassland.

Back at the plaza, wading through rows of parked cars, I found a plaque along San Pablo Avenue placed by the Oakland Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Boy Scouts of America in 1937 reading:

“This Monument Marks the Southern Boundary of the Rancho San Pablo; 17,938 Acres Granted by Governor Jose Figueroa to Don Francisco Maria Castro June 12, 1834.”

This was the only on-site clue to a further layer of history, beyond the reach of oral history now. A small adobe house still stands about three miles to the north, eroded brown bricks and wooden beams surrounded by fast-food restaurants. I tried to imagine herds of horned Spanish cattle spread out over the hills and flats, and fine horsemen galloping out to hunt or lasso stock on the wide grasslands by the little hill here.

Documentary evidence became necessary now to reconstruct these deeper layers of time. Father Juan Crespi’s diary of the Fages exploratory expedition up California in 1772 describes in March 27 and 28 how the Spanish walked along a grassy plain of the East Bay, crossing many arroyos emptying into the estuary. The hills to the east were treeless and grass-covered. Lilies and an abundance of “very leafy sweet marjorum” grew on the plain (was this Hedge nettle, Stachys sp.?). They killed a grizzly at Strawberry Creek (in present Berkeley), and must have passed within a mile of El Cerrito Plaza (Bolton 1927).

Ahead to the north the explorers encountered a village of Indians on the bank of Wildcat Creek near San Pablo Bay. Bedrock mortars in several small ravine sides in the nearby hills attest to the acorn-gathering and grinding activities in small live oak groves by people in some past time.

But local histories state that bears were particularly numerous in the El Cerrito-Berkeley area; place-names like Grizzly Peak and Bear Creek nearby back this assertion up. Three or 400 years ago bears might be uppermost in my mind if I could walk across the field that once occupied the parking lot -- I might see well-worn bear trails across the bunchgrass flat leading to a massive oak where bears would gorge on acorns. The trunk might be rubbed by bears, and rounded beds might be found in the wildrye under the willows along the creek, day beds for bears escaping the midday sun. Even after grizzlies were gone, settlers in Orange County described how claw-marks could be seen on alder and maple trunks years after the last bears were gone, and how worn trails wound through the brush of canyons (Sleeper 1976). Now, all hints that grizzlies once dominated this landscape have now been erased.

Picturing large bears here was difficult, and I wished to know more about this hidden world beyond living memory.

Hand-drawn map from 1830 showing Rancho de San Pablo, including Albany Hill.
Grizzly bear trails.
Sketch of grizzly "nest" in vegetation.
Bear rub on a coast live oak. Pastel on toned paper.
I imagine bear trails in a blue oak savanna, eastern Marin County, California. Charcoal on paper.
Grizzly trailm and grizzly walking. Felt tip pen on paper.
Bear den on slope. Ballpoint pen on paper.

Big Bears

The largest bears in the lower 48 states were found in California until just after 1900. Jim Sleeper, growing up in southern California at Santa Ana said the average size of grizzlies there was around 600 pounds (ibid.). But a mammoth male bear came out of San Onofre Canyon in the low coastal Santa Ana Range that weighed in at 1400 pounds, larger even than the great buffalo-killing grizzlies of the plains states, and equaled only by the largest Kenai Peninsula Brown bears of Alaska (Grinnell 1935). Females were often half the bulk of these giants. But even larger bears were claimed: in 1873 John Lang shot the animal the locals called “the California King” in Soledad Canyon on the north flank of the San Gabriel Mountains, “one of the grizzliest grizzlies ever seen on the coast” (ibid.) It was said to tip the scales at an incredible 2200 pounds and had 16 1/2 inch-long feet. One San Diego County bear brought down with several shots was “bigger than a Durham bull,” and took two horses to turn over; it measured seven feet from nose to tail and was estimated to have stood 9 1/2 feet tall (ibid.). These super-sized California grizzlies came from the Santa Ana Mountains, Santa Rosa Mountains, San Jacinto Mountains, and Cuyamaca Mountains, all in southern California. Hunters also claimed equally gargantuan bears north up to Monterey and Hollister in the South Coast Range. The hide and claws alone of one shot grizzly from Orange County weighed 200 pounds (ibid.).

Grizzlies were only somewhat smaller in the North Coast Ranges and Sacramento valley, and the smallest specimens came from the lower slope of the southern Sierra Nevada in Kern County (ibid.).

Their front paws had claws “exceedingly long, strongly curved” --two to six inches or more -- but often found worn down from digging (ibid., Schoonmaker 1968).

California grizzly pelage color was quite varied, from gray to brown, yellowish, red, silvery, white-patched, and often with multi-colored long hairs or “grizzled” whitish tips. Bears could be uniformly tones, or with a pattern such as a dark dorsal stripe, light-tipped side bands, and black legs and underparts (Grinnell 1935). Several Santa Ana grizzlies were black with whitish faces and necks (Sleeper 1976). Such was the color variety of these bears, that they earned descriptive names such as “Cinnamon bear,” “Silver-tip,” “Gray bear,” “Brown bear,” “Little black bear,” and “Oso gris” -- grizzled bear (Grinnell 1935, Storer and Tevis 1955).

For a the few seasons I went “bear-watching” at Yellowstone National park I sat on roadsides with a like-minded international group gathered to spot bears and other wildlife in one of the few places left where a nearly complete ecosystem full of Holocene megafauna still exists, all interacting as they once did in California. We were gratified to see grizzlies often, and I sketched bears that were brown-coppery hues with light sheens on their mid-sections, huge dark brown males with pot bellies, and even “blonde bears.”

A huge southern California grizzly wanders through the foothills above what is now San Fernando Valley 500 years ago. The slopes are covered with giant needlegrass (Stipa coronata), Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda), coast prickly pear (Opuntia littoralis), California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and other flowering buckwheats, and lemonade berry bushes (Rhus integrifolia). Oil on panel, 12 x 14 inches, 2005.
The same scene today: San Fernando Valley, north of Hollywood.

Field sketches using a spotting scope, from my car, at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Felt-tip pen on paper.

“He was the one creature in the range which every gulch, hogback, peak and potrero at some time shared in common.”

-- Jim Sleeper (1976), growing up in the Santa Ana Mountains of south coastal California.

Distribution and Abundance

So pervasive was the Grizzly in Old California that it earned a place on the state flag. The best text summarizing the information on this animal is by the naturalists Tracy Storer and L. Tevis (1955), who found records of grizzlies across the state in nearly every habitat except deep in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts.

Grizzlies lived abundantly in southern California across the grassy plains and valleys, the sycamore-lined creeks, the sage ridges, the bouldery gorges before European arrival, but gradually hunting pressures pushed them into the backcountry mountains into open pine forests and chaparral (Sleeper 1976). They were normally found on the west slope of the Sierras, even to the summits -- one was killed around 1902 at 10,000 feet elevation near Carson Pass, Amador County (Storer and Tevis 1955). In their wanderings some grizzlies were even reported by the Cahuilla people near Palm Springs and Indian Wells at the western edge of the Colorado Desert (Grinnell 1935).

Prior to 1850 the bears were numerous in Sacramento Valley roaming the tule marshes, slough edges, and great riparian woodlands of willow and cottonwood. They hunted the brush and deep Coast live oak woodlands of the Bay Area, and “herds” of bears were reported on the coastal prairies of the San Francisco peninsula. One grizzly was found swimming to Angel island in the San Francisco Estuary in 1827 (Storer and Tevis 1955). In the 1860s settler Jonathan Watson once saw 300 grizzlies in a single valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains (Sleeper 1976).

Grizzlies lived also in arid grasslands such as Corral Hollow in the Interior Coast Range hills of Alameda County (Grinnell 1935). In the Napa Valley area in 1831 a settler said bears were everywhere on the valley floors and in the ranges, and as many as 50 or 60 could be seen in a 24-hour period (Storer and Tevis 1955).

Dense chaparral and brush thickets were favored for day retreats, with numerous trails leading out to oaks where the bears gorged on acorns in season.

California grizzly in purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra). Pen and ink on paper.
Huge male grizzly. Field sketches at Yellowstone National Park.

The Food Quest

The bounty of the acorn crop provided by the abundant and diverse oaks around the state surely helped to account for the numbers of very large bears in the past. Keen observers such as Hungarian-born naturalist/medic John Xantus, stationed at Fort Tejon in the Tehachapi Mountains, described the glens of Valley oaks as “great rendezvous” spots for grizzlies seeking ripe acorns (Zwinger 1986).

In 1840 at Cholame Valley in the South Coast Range 18 grizzlies were seen eating acorns in one afternoon under the oaks in fall (Grinnell 1935). Though large adult grizzlies cannot climb well, old-timers watched them nevertheless get up into the bowed and twisted giant limbs in their efforts to access acorns. Homesteader S. T. Miller near Irvine in 1974 described them:

“Every fall... for a while after I went to the Bell Canyon Place, bears used to come down into the oaks in Crow Canyon.... They would climbe the oaks and feed on the acorns. They would break the tops out of the oaks. The bears were so heavy that in climbing to the topmost limbs they’d break out the tops. I have seen lots of oaks broken.” (Sleeper 1976)

Young bears could climb well and went up into the acorn-laden branches to shake and break the twigs and unload them of their bounty. Bears could be seen eating fallen acorns quietly in groups in oak woodlands and savannas. (Storer and Tevis 1955). In good pine nut years in the Rocky Mountains grizzlies can gain more than three pounds per day as they gobble up this food item (Murray 1995) -- I can imagine California grizzlies also gaining much weight on good acorn years.

Canyon live oak acorns. Oil on canvas.

Grizzlies fishing for river salmon must have also been a common occurrence in the past, providing another source of food abundance to these animals (see Chapter 13). Fishing probably occurred most on spawning reaches and waterfalls or rapids where migrating salmon were vulnerable. For instance, bears were said to come down at night to San Jose area streams such as Stevens Creek when the salmon and steelhead ran (Chapin 1971). Grizzlies were occasionally seen fishing for Steelhead in south coastal streams such as in Trabuco Canyon (Sleeper 1976). Other early observers saw grizzlies scavenging for fish along coastal shores, and even using their paws to catch live marine fish (Storer and Tevis 1955).

What fascinated me most about the natural world are the complex interconnections of the various life forms and processes of a given piece of land, and I pondered on how the recent changes to California have affected this network. In the forests of the Pacific Northwest where salmon abound and bears yet feed on them, researchers have found interesting links between the ocean nutrients contained in salmon bodies and forest growth. Bears swiping up salmon usually carry off the larger fish into as far as 200 yards into the forest to feed to avoid some of the competitive scavengers such as gulls, ravens, and eagles. The bears often do not finish the carcass, preferring the fattest flesh and especially the eggs of females. The fish remains gradually decay into the forest floor, adding nutrients such as nitrogen that increases vegetative growth, and allowing stream-side trees to grow faster and larger than other trees away from the streams or on streams where salmon have been extirpated. The tree rings of salmon-fertilized trees were thicker after good fish-run years, although with a delay of one to three years. As much as half the nitrogen in these rings was found to come from salmon. In addition, grizzlies deposited scat and urine, also rich in nitrogen, in the vicinity of salmon streams, cycling ocean nutrients far into the mountains. On the Columbia River bears eat salmon even 800 miles inland, and up to 58% of their diet is salmon. Grizzlies have been shown to grow larger and have more cubs per litter when living around salmon streams. After finding these links, researcher Thomas E. Reimchen at the University of Victoria in British Columbia says there is really no such thing as surplus, that everything is used (Semeniuk 2003, Gende and Quinn 2003); food for thought for Old California ecosystems.

Grzzlies catching giant chinook salmon in the Sacramento River. Oil on cotton rag paper.

In the past grizzlies were known to follow the buffalo herds of the Great Plains, and today they will follow caribou along parts of their migrations, looking for an opportunity to make a kill or scavenge a carcass after an accident or a wolf predation; undoubtedly grizzlies also interacted with the large elk herds in California’s grasslands and savannas, although the swift-footed elk could usually easily outrun the big bears.

Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue traveling up the Sacramento River in the 1820s witnessed a predatory grizzly trying to catch dinner by his campsite:

“In the night we were much disturbed by bears, which pursued the deer quite close to our tents; and by the clear moonlight we plainly saw a stag spring into the river to escape the bear; the latter, however, jumped after him, and both swam down the stream till they were out of sight” (Kotzebue 1830).

More profitable for the grizzlies was scenting out elk young on their traditional calving grounds. In June our group watched a grizzly in Yellowstone National Park zigzag across a valley flat, trying to scent out elk calves hiding low in the grass while their mothers grazed. Nearby elk cows with heads high watched the bear’s busy meanderings. We were sure the grizzly would suddenly pounce on a calf, but it failed to find one so it walked away into a ravine and turned over logs and searched among serviceberry bushes, the cows still watching it. Another bear succeeded in finding an elk calf hunkered down invisibly, killed it, and dragged it a quarter mile to a boulder pile where it ate it, then rested and guarded it from the scavengers.

Bears may test a group of elk and calves by loping towards them and rushing in if a calf is slow to run. But big ungulates can defend themselves too: elk bulls have been known to gore grizzlies with their sharp antlers. Visitors at Yellowstone told me how they had seen a group of bison surrounding an elk calf, not allowing its mother to approach it; a grizzly was spotted at the edge of a nearby forest, unwilling to get at the baby animal due to the horned adult herd guarding it. The grizzly left, and the bison then wandered off, allowing the elk cow to reunite with her calf. I was amazed to hear how the bison applied their protective behavior toward the young of another species.

I watched this grizzly try to sniff out elk calves who were lying hidden in sagebrush. The elk mothers watched nervously nearby. As good a nose as the bears have, the elk calves are born with little scent, and this time the grzzly did not find the hidden babies. Field sketches, felt-tip pen on paper, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National park.

Today grizzlies in Alaska often dig for ground squirrels. Big “piano-sized” holes dot slopes as the bears pursue the rodents (Schoonmaker 1968). The abundant California ground squirrel (Spermophilus californicus) probably provided bears with much prey in the early grasslands at all times of year. Perhaps grizzlies, as well as wolves, coyotes, foxes, and eagles, kept ground squirrels in check during the early days, not allowing them to overpopulate and eat themselves out of plant food. Biologist Adolph Murie found that this may be the case for Arctic ground squirrels (S. parryii) (Murie 1981).

Grizzlies also chase voles (Microtus californicus) through their grassy haunts; and pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae) hunting is revealed by widespread digging and scraping by the bears. All these rodents probably provided valuable food for the California grizzly.

Claws on the forefeet are designed for digging.

Carrion is a perennial favorite with bears. At Yellowstone, our bear-watching group noticed a huge male grizzly early that morning walking through a valley floor, its nose constantly to the ground. We moved up the hill closer to our parked cars to give him plenty of room. As we watched him with binoculars and spotting scopes, one of our group suggested the bear was scenting out female bears in estrus. But the bear suddenly stopped, finding a winter-killed elk carcass hidden in a sagebrush clump. He chewed at it, his head and shoulder hump bobbing above the sagebrush; then he moved off continuing to sniff the ground.

Bears have an exquisite sense of smell. I talked with a biologist who worked with sniffer-dogs, and his observations gave me a possible glimpse of the world of the bear: Ryan noticed the scent act like a liquid on the ground, like low streams. He watched the dogs follow the scent as it whirled into eddies behind bushes, and how early in the morning the scent pooled up in depressions until a breeze blew it out and it flowed out across the ground.

Beached whales were actively scavenged by grizzlies, as the early Spanish explorer Vizcaino saw in Monterey in 1602: a very large whale had beached and bears came at night to feed on the carcass. The Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue also reported “countless troops” of bears at beached whales (Storer and Tevis 1955). Again, explorer William Brewer in the 1860s found at Monterey, “a whale was stranded on the beach, and the tracks of grizzlies were thick about it” (Brewer 1949).

The great bears were also said to steal prey killed by Mountain lions and Jaguars around Fort Tejon (Storer and Tevis 1955). Wolf kills are often visited by grizzlies today in areas where the two share ranges (see Chapter 6) -- in 1968 a total of 23 grizzlies were seen at a single bison carcass in the Yellowstone area (Craighead, Summer and Mitchell 1995).

California bears probably ate grasshoppers, ants, moths, and insect larvae such as wood-boring beetle grubs, tearing apart logs in their search for these morsels as grizzlies do today.

A group of bears at a grey whale carcass, washed up on a San Francisco Bay mudflat. Numerous species of gulls come to partake of the feast, as well as bald eagles. Acrylic on paper.

Grizzlies are known to eat an extremely wide variety of plant foods, and evidence from the past indicates California bears were no different.

Jepson called Purple needlegrass “Beargrass” (Stipa pulchra) in his early botanical guide to California (Jepson 1901), perhaps indicating that this common bunchgrass was eaten by grizzlies -- it would be most palatable in the early spring. Green leaves of other grasses are grazed by grizzlies today in Wyoming and Montana, such as Mountain brome grass (Bromus marginatus), Bluegrass (Poa secunda), and Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis). Sedges (Carex) and rushes (Juncus) are also eaten. In Yellowstone National Park green grasses and sedges were found to be dietary staples of the grizzly (Craighead, Summer and Mitchell 1995), and the bears can appear like grazing cattle. Groups of bears in California’s past might have congregated on burns to feed on new plant growth.

Grizzlies were very fond of green clover leaves and flowers (Trifolium spp.) growing in grassy areas according to many early reports. In the Sacramento Valley in spring and early summer bears were reported to come out of the hills and river thickets to graze on green clover “like herds of swine.” In the meadows of Bear Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains bears were found eating clover in August or September 1845 (Storer and Tevis 1955).

Dozens of other wild greens were probably eaten by the grizzlies in California, based on studies of living bears in various parts of North America where they still roam. Just a few examples could be listed to show the huge range of bear food -- the soft lettuce-like Claytonia, Yellowcarrot (Lomatium spp.), thistles (Cirsium spp.), Willow herb (Epilobium spp.), Peppergrass (Lepidium spp.), Owl’s clover (Castilleja and Orthocarpus spp.), and Native dandelion (Agoseris spp.). I can picture hiking down a narrow trail in the past in what is now Tilden Regional Park in the East Bay and running into a large grizzly breaking down stalks of Cowparsnip (Heracleum lanatum), crunching on the juicy stems -- and I would have to reverse my course.

Roots and bulbs are an abundant high-quality food source in the state, and grizzlies took advantage of this. Various species of the lily family could have been dug up with the long front claws: Mariposa lily (Calochortus spp.), Wild onion (Allium spp.), Brodiaeas (Brodiaea, Dichelostemma, and Triteleia), and perhaps Soap plant (Chlorogalum spp.).

The Spanish explorer Pedro Fages, a few miles west of San Luis Obispo in the summer of 1769 noted:

“In this canyon were seen whole troops of bears; they have the ground all plowed up from digging in it to find their sustenance in the roots which the land produces” (Priestley 1937).

Exploring the grassy Inner Coast Range hills on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley in Stanislaus County, William Brewer in 1862 found grizzly tracks in “ecxeeding abundance,” wandering about on moonlit nights near his camp. On Mount Oso he found the whole summit dug over by bears for roots, and the trees scratched and broken (Brewer 1949).

On the south coastal plains and hills, as around Pasadena, bears may have fed on Beavertail cactus (Opuntia) fruits in fall.

Bears will travel miles to dine on huckleberries or similar delights, and in California the berry crops are diverse, most likely attracting bears in the past to the oak woodlands, redwood forests, and shrublands to feed on Rose hips (Rosa spp.), Osoberries (Oemleria cerasiformis) -- “Bear berry” from the Spanish, Thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), Blackberries (R. ursinus), Salmonberry (R. spectabilis), Snowberries (Symphoricarpos spp.), Wild strawberries (Fragaria spp.), Huckleberries (Vaccinium spp.), Madrone berries (Arbutus menziesii), Chokecherries (Prunus virginianavar.demissa), Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), Dogwood berries (Cornus spp.), Gooseberries (Ribes spp.), and Currants (Ribes spp.). Nearly every season had its berries -- Elderberries (Sambucus spp.) and Wild grape (Vitis californica) thickets probably attracted bears commonly in the summer, and in winter they could feast on Manzanita berries (Arctostaphylos spp.) and Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries.

The bear biologists John Craighead, Jay Summer, and John Mitchell studying bears in the Yellowstone region of the northern Rocky Mountains described important sites on the landscape they called “ecocenters,” where large amounts of dependable high-quality food resources were located seasonally (Craighead, Summer and Mitchell 1995). Grizzlies aggregated at these spots, sometimes to over 100 individuals, and regular trails might radiate out from these spots like a wagon wheel as bears traveled in from distant surroundings. I am tempted to think Old California had many such ecocenters: berry patches, oak groves producing acorn crops, salmon rivers, coastlines throwing up whales regularly. That grizzlies were abundant in the state from all acounts may be partly explained by the rich diversity of food available, although many of the foods would vary in quantity yearly, such as acorn crops and rodent populations, keeping the bears on the move over large ranges.

Grizzly eating brodiaea bulbs. Graphite on paper drawing.
Grizzly calendar of food items, ballpoint pen and colored pencil on college ruled paper. Details below.

Don't underestimate the power of pencil and paper to take notes, record information, and summarize complex data. I took field notes for decades observing the phenology and timing of different plant species, acorn crop periods, bloom times, and when grasses greened up and dried. Later, I took a few pages of college ruled paper and drew out the above charts, as a draft summary of years of observations in Tilden-Wildcate Canyon Regional Parks. The draft turned out to work well and I never made a cleaned-up final illustration.

Some Old Bear Behavior

All this abundance of food may also explain why many grizzlies in California did not hibernate like their Rocky Mountain cousins. The mast-rich woodlands could keep bears feeding all winter; where acorns and beechnuts are common in eastern North America Black bears will forgo denning as well (Herrero 1985). Famous bear trapper Grizzly Adams saw bears through the winter in the central Sierras below 5,000 feet (Storer and Tevis 1955). In Orange County grizzlies were sighted in every month of the year (Sleeper 1976).

Dens of grizzlies reported to be used by those bears that did hibernate, or by sow bears with cubs, included such sites as natural caves, boulder-formed caves, or dug-out holes often in thick chaparral. In the San Joaquin Valley bears dug burrows four feet in diameter, acting like giant ground squirrels (Storer and Tevis 1955).

The signs of these huge beasts would be evident to a hiker 200 years ago: trails were common along streams, leading to oak groves from thickets, and in chaparral. Some paths were worn down five to six inches deep into the ground surface. The bears would often place each step into the same place each time they passed, creating a series of pits in the trail (Storer and Tevis 1955). Tubes through dense chaparral may have been formed as the grizzlies passed under the canopies of taller shrub cover on their trails.

Grizzlies seem to enjoy rubbing their hides on rocks and trees, and claw scratches and bite marks may also serve as communication points for the bear population. In California claw scratchings and rub marks were seen on tree trunks of pine, manzanita, and downed logs (Storer and Tevis 1955); undoubtedly oaks were much used. Some rubs used by bears itching their hides become smooth and worn and may be used for centuries (Halfpenny 1999).

California grizzly females were observed to have from one to three cubs, two usually, which corresponds to what is observed today at Yellowstone: when breeding coincides with ecocenter groupings, mating occurs at these sites; if not, the bears breed as isolated dispersed individuals (Craighead, Summer and Mitchell 1995).

Ballpoint pen drawing of bear rubbing its back on a tree.
Mother grizzly with cubs, field sketches in Yellowstone National Park.

Mother with cubs. Ballpoint pen on paper.
A thousand years ago: grizzly mother and cubs in bluegrass (Poa secunda) and valley oak (Quercus lobata) savanna overlooking Walnut Creek and what is now Concord. Mt. Diablo is in the background. Oil on cotton rag paper.
Grizzly bear cubs. Ballpoint pen on paper.


I became fascinated by the interactions of animal species on a landscape -- these connections between species can be as important in reconstructing early California as individual species accounts. While watching wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, I saw a Coyote following a mother grizzly with two cubs feeding on a grassy slope. Perhaps the coyote was hoping for a rodent to be disturbed out of its burrow, but the sow took a few steps toward the coyote to chase it off.

Where the smaller Black bear dwelled side by side with Grizzlies, as in the Yosemite area of the Sierra Nevada, Black bears deferred to Grizzlies on carcasses according to hunters (Grinnell 1935). Black bears ranged south to the mountains of Kern County, and stayed in the forests; grizzlies tended to favor the lower plains. Possibly Black bears ranged into the forested mountains of San Diego County even earlier, for one was shot in this county in 1934. After the elimination of grizzlies, black bear numbers increased in the southern California ranges in the 1960s and 70s (Sleeper 1976). A possible ecological “release” may have happened to Black bears in areas after the extirpation of the grizzlies, as in the Mattole River area where Black bears were uncommon until the dominant species was gone; then Black bears were said to have become more common. No Black bears were reported in the Tehachapi Mountains until after the disappearance of the Grizzly (Grinnell 1835).

Jim Sleeper said of the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange and San Diego Counties, that canyons with high grizzly concentrations were avoided by local Indians for village sites. Food competition must have happened between people and bears at acorn trees, hazelnut thickets, and good root areas, but many tribes also hunted grizzlies. The Hupa called the grizzly “Great Big Brown” (Storer and Tevis 1955), and this reminds me of the parallel in the English languauge, where the words Bear and Bruin come from an old Indo-European root meaning “brown,” a word of respect Eurasian hunters once used so as not to offend the animal -- people and bears have had an ancient connection in the Northern Hemisphere.

Bear biologist Barrie Gilbert, however, thinks the “demonic” reputation of grizzlies as unpredictable and dangerous is undeserved: working with the bears for decades and studying historic accounts such as the Lewis and Clark expedition descriptions, he thinks Indians and grizzlies coexisted well for thousands of years (Gilbert 2002). Bear attacks may have resulted more often than not as defensive behavior from hunted or provoked bears.

Black bear, felt-tip pen on paper.
Field sketches of black bear, ballpoint pen on paper.
Pen and ink portrait study of a large grizzly.
Graphite study of big SoCal bear for the San Fernando Valley oil painting, above.

“Suddenly we heard a crackling of brush and a puffing, angry sound like the blowing of a frightened hog, not fifty yards away, and we knew the bear had scented us.”

-- Joseph E. Pleasants hunting in the Santa Ana Mountains in 1859 (Sleeper 1976)

The End of the Bear

William Brewer noted that the California grizzly generally left men alone if not bothered or shot at. But it was not to be.

Mexican rancheros usually slaughtered cattle on the matanza grounds out on the range, taking the hides and fat and leaving much of the meat -- a boon to the carrion-seeking grizzlies. The refuse probably quickly created new ecocenters, attracting bears from long distances. But not all was easy for the bruins. Vaqueros took sport in chasing and lassoing bears, and transporting them back to the corrals to face a well-chosen wild bull in battle.

For a year I lived in the town of Corralitos east of Santa Cruz in central California, so named for the “little corral” used for bear-and-bull fights during the Mexican era. Looking out over the rural, peaceful horse fields and housing developments, I could little imagine a bear hunt occurring with soldiers and gentlemen riding out from the rancho on gennet horses armed with riatas and arms, lassoing a grizzly up in Loma Prieta by the paws and neck, muzzling it, and dragging it back to the bull pit to celebrate Easter or some special occasion such as the inauguration of the governor. The bear would have its leg tied by a rope to a pole, or to the leg of the bull, and a fight would erupt. Sometimes the long-horned bull would win, goring the bear. But at other times the bear would swing a mighty paw and knock the bull off its feet killing it. See Ray Chapin’s book on central California grizzlies (1971) for eye-witness descriptions from this time in history.

The California legislature outlawed bear-and-bull fights in 1854 “to prevent noisy or barbarous amusements on the Sabbath” (Sawyer 1922). By then American settlers had been pushing into the fertile valleys, forcing most bears into the mountains and remote hills. But grizzlies continued to raid farms and ranches for honey, corn and domestic sheep and calves.

Grizzlies quickly gained individual names and fame: “White Face,” “Moccasin John” who lost his claws in a trap, “Baldy,”and “Old Clubfoot” who raided new bee farms in Orange County -- actually the name of many bears in folk tradition, often due to a bear wrenching its foot out of a bear trap. The largest bear killed in the Santa Ana Mountains was simply known as “The Big Bear” (Sleeper 1976).

“...They are scarcer now. When I came here first we saw them every day. Now we ride sometimes 50 miles to find a bear.”

--Colin Preston, San Luis Obispo in 1857. When interviewed he claimed to have killed 70 large bears and 140 smaller ones in ten years (Sleeper 1976).

“Meat hunters” in southern and central California concentrated on quail, geese, ducks, and deer to supply markets, but in the late 1870s they turned to grizzlies. Bear meat was a tasty offer in San Francisco, and was shipped from as far as San Diego ports. Dried bear meat was equally profitable to supply the goldminers, and so “jerky hunters” helped reduce the bear population in the last decades of the 19th century (Sleeper 1976). Bear hides were often sold back East, and gall bladders to Chinese immigrants. By 1888 grizzly numbers declined noticeably in the Santa Ana stronghold, and by 1898 bears were considered “shot out.” Isolated reports of grizzlies continued there until 1913 (ibid.). In the Diablo Range an Oakland resident noticed bears were rare as early as 1857 from hunting (Chapin 1971).

Many other bears were poisoned with strychnine and trapped by stockmen. In the Santa Cruz Mountains grizzlies held out into the 1880s, then were gone (ibid.).

Possibly the last California grizzly strongholds were the rugged canyons and tall ridges of the southern Sierras, where a few were sighted and shot in the 1920s, and the remote wilderness of what is now the Los Padres National Forest in the South Coast Range. When I visited these still-remote places I can’t help but imagine large bear tracks in the mud of a streambank, a tuft of long multicolored fur caught in a gooseberry thorn, clawed-up diggings in a meadow, or a distant dot moving along a grassy ridge -- a ghost of a California grizzly now beyond our living memory.

In this brief look at the great bear of California’s past I have only touched on some of the ecology and behavior of this important animal of our heritage. For more see the beautiful collection of historic images and quotes gathered from the Bancroft Library, Bear In Mind: The California Grizzly, by Susan Snyder, 2003.

Historic bear and bull fight scene in California when giant ranchos spread across the grasslands after 1800. Felt-tip pen illustration on paper.
Land of no fences: before European contact, grizzlies roamed the Inner South Coast Range in what is now San Benito County. Waving fields of nodding needlegrass (Stipa cernua) and blue oak (Quercus douglasiana) savannas cothed the ridges. Oil on cotton rag paper.