Some Californians Push to Reintroduce ‘Cousins’ of Extinct California Grizzly Bear

by Jennifer Shea

Some environmentalists in California believe it’s possible to bring grizzly bears back to the state. 

The California grizzly bear was a subspecies of brown bear. However, it is now extinct. One of the last members of the species died in a cage in Golden Gate Park in 1911 after 22 years of captivity. That bear, Monarch, is the model for the image on California’s state flag.

Environmentalists Want to Bring Grizzly Bears Back to California

But in 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity called for grizzly bears from other states to relocate to habitat in California’s Southern Sierra Nevada, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported. The CBD believes that if the bears are spread across a wider range of habitat areas, it will help guarantee their long-term survival.

The group filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It asked them to broaden their recovery plan for grizzly bears and bring some back to the turf where the California grizzly bear once roamed. There were approximately 1,850 grizzly bears in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington in 2014. 

However, Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Tahoe Daily Tribune that their plan wasn’t realistic. The bears have to move to habitats with similar foods and conditions to their current habitats. And the areas that the CBD was proposing don’t fit that bill.

Moreover, Ann Bryant, executive director of the Tahoe-based BEAR League, doubted that people would welcome grizzlies back to California.

“[We] can’t even co-exist with black bears,” she said. “How in the world do we think we can co-exist with grizzlies?”

Reviving the Effort

Now, a group of researchers, ethicists and scientists is reviving the CBD’s effort.

The California Grizzly Research Network is a research group that is currently preparing findings for release and public discussion in 2024, according to Inside Hook. And among the questions they’re researching is whether or not people want to reintroduce the grizzly bear to California.

“Even in a state like California, with 40 million people, we could do it if we wanted to,” said Network founder Peter Alagona, an associate professor of environmental studies at U.C. Santa Barbara.

However, Alagona says they’re trying to better understand public opinion in the Eastern Sierras regarding returning grizzlies to California.

“If people perceive grizzlies as ‘our’ bears, as part of ‘my’ backyard and my landscape, something that makes it Californian, then you’re going to see a lot of support,” post-doctoral researcher Alex McInturff argued.

But recent developments have trended toward more human-bear conflicts in that area, not less. Humans and black bears are not getting along well, The Nevada County Union reported in 2019. The black bear population has grown as the human population has expanded, leading to more calls about bears, more home break-ins, more trouble at campsites. 

“More problems is what it amounts to,” Lesa Johnston, education and outreach staffer for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Union.

Sierra Nevada plays host to 40% of the state’s total black bear population.

However, the Network firmly believes that reintroducing grizzlies to California is a good idea.

“In terms of feasibility, I’ve learned through studying this that [the reintroduction of the grizzly] is actually not crazy,” Alagona insisted. “It’s a choice. If we decide to go down this road [of reintroduction], it would require time, money, dedication and some risk.”