California Grizzly: The Lost Icon
The bear is gone, but an echo still exists.
Ursus arctos californicus.
On our state flag. On the sports fields of our schools and universities. On the labels of our beer and wine bottles. This exhibition explores that echo in the form of grizzly bears from afar. The California grizzly shared many characteristics with its still surviving cousins in North America. The images depicted in this exhibition are taken from that ursine stock, prominently featured is the Alaskan brown bear, which the California Grizzly was especially akin.
The Grizzly, emblem of California, was once numerous and dominant, is no more, and unable to tell its own story. This collection of natural history photos attempts to explore how this iconic beast would fit into the scenes of the San Francisco Bay area.
To explore the lost icon of California and how it relates to us today. Does it even matter? And should you even care that the icon emblazoned across California’s finest institutions is gone forever? Exterminated, extirpated, made extinct by the modern California man.
Range of Ursus arctos: Former and Present
Brooks River, Alaska, Katmai National Park
Margot Creek, Alaska, Katmai National Park Naknek Lake, Alaska, Katmai National Park MikFik Creek, Alaska McNeil River, Alaska Denali National Park, Alaska Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming Glacier National Park, Montana
Not a California Grizzly
F2D: Before the arrival of Europeans, it is estimated that California had 10,000 grizzlies living alongside 130,000 Natives, making for an interesting bear-to-man ratio.
Aborigine and beast were competitors for the same kinds of food, a state of affairs that was bound to bring conflict at certain times of year .
F3D: California’s state grass “Purple Needlegrass” was referred to as “beargrass” in the 1800s, perhaps because it was eaten by bears in spring, as sedges are today in Alaska coast regions.
F3E: The grizzly was a paradox. Attacked in the wild by man it was a deadly adversary, yet when left alone and with an abundant and consistent supply of food resources, it could be as docile as a sheep.
F1A: The grizzlies of California probably resembled their counterparts elsewhere in North America, given some similarities in food resources and the landscape in the coastal areas of Alaska and British Columbia.
S3: Grizzlies in coastal Alaska regularly fish the inlets for salmon, and those in California probably had similar ways. Bears were observed using their paws to fish along the coast in San Mateo County.
F2C: Grizzlies regularly made a habit of cleaning up the beaches of the carrasses that washed ashore, making grizzlies the major beach sanitarians of early California.
F2B: The grizzly is exceptionally agile with its paws. It can strike like a sledgehammer, and move boulders. It boxes with lightning-like rapidity….or it feels an itch, it will daintily use but one claw to gently scratch.
O3: In 1602 Father Ascension, Vizcaino expedition, was the first European to write about the California Grizzly. While in Monterey he saw California grizzlies, noting that they came to the shore at night to feed on the carcass of a whale that had washed up.
B5: Our home, the community of Mountain View and surrounding areas, was teeming with grizzly bears in former times.
The hills surrounding Mountain View and Silicon Valley once provided the shelter needed by mother bears for their dens. There is a cave near Skunk Hollow, Santa Clara county that served as the maternity den for countless grizzly moms and their cubs.
F3C: In March 1776, the Anza expedition was making its way north up the SF peninsula and in the hills west of Millbrae and he saw many bears.
During 1850, a traveler en route between San Jose and Santa Cruz measured a bear track that was 14 by 8 inches in the chaparral. This print measures 14 by 11.
The California Grizzly was a strong swimmer. In fact, in 1827 a boat near Angel Island in San Francisco Bay came upon one swimming that attempted to board the boat.
A group of 10 Spanish Californians, with a relay of horses, “lassoed and killed forty bears in one night” at the cattle slaughtering ground near the town of Mountain View.
Bear and bull fights were held all-over early California, including San Jose. San Francisco sponsored this event until the 1860s. Monterey’s last official Bear and Bull fight was in 1881.
Sometimes Mountain Lions would be taken in the live traps designed to catch grizzlies for the arena. When this happened a bear-and-lion fight would be arranged, as occurred in Castroville in 1865.
Bear traps, made of redwood, were still visible as recent as 1952, in the Santa Lucia mountains of Monterey County.
The livestock brought by white Europeans proved a temporary boon to the bear population, and campaigns to exterminate the grizzlies sealed its eventual fate in 1924 of extinction in California.
1924: When the last grizzly sighted in California was shot in Sequoia National Park. Less than one hundred years ago and within the span of a human’s lifetime.
In 1909 there were grizzlies in every major mountain mass, today only four states have any at all. There seems to be a tacit assumption that if grizzlies survive in Canada and Alaska, that is good enough. It is not good enough for me.…
Aldo Leopold, through some of his writing, discusses ideas for why it matters the California Grizzly is gone. He promotes a nuanced thought process about appreciating your backyard.
Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like regulating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.
“Youth yet unborn will pole up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, or climb the Sierras with James Capen “Grizzly” Adams, and each generation in turn will ask: Where is the big white bear?”