California's mascot doomed to extinction

By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Correspondent
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Nowadays, just about the only place you'll see a grizzly bear in California is on the state flag.

The California grizzly is now extinct, but it once lived right here in Placer County, alongside the California condor and yellow wolf. They were among creatures cited in a list of local wildlife that a 19th century naturalist compiled for "Bean’s History and Directory."

Of course, that was before this "mountain wilderness was conquered… and made to become, in a few brief years, the abode of civilization and refinement," as E.G. White, editor of Bean’s History, described early settlements.

California has come a long way in the past 160-plus years, growing into the most populated state in the union. But along the way, California has lost a staggering amount of wildlife and its habitat. Perhaps the most poignant loss of all is that of California's biggest, most fearsome – and fearless – predator: Ursus arctos californicus, the California grizzly bear.

"The grizzly used to matter," said Rick Bass, in a forward to "California Grizzly," the definitive book about the state’s extinct mascot. "Wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions, jaguars, buffalo, elk, sea lions – these giants of both reality and the imagination grows out of California's soil, in the not yet distant past.”

The native Maidu Indians believed that human bearmen encased themselves in the skins of grizzlies for the purpose of killing humans more easily.

The authors of "California grizzly," Tracy Storer and Lloyd Tevis, Jr., liken this belief in "werebears" to the werewolves common to European folklore.

There were plenty of real, live grizzlies during the Indians’ time. Grizzlies apparently became even more abundant as the Spanish established California missions and introduced livestock.

While not fast enough to catch the fleet-footed antelope, deer and elk once common in California, the big bears apparently outsmarted the less-alert domestic beasts.

Grizzlies, according to accounts cited by Storer and Tevis, would lie on their backs and playfully wave their paws in the air when prey was near.

"Cattle are curious by nature. If they saw grizzlies playing like that the cattle would draw closer and closer," the author wrote. "The cattle would surround the bear in a wondering and gaping circle, until the bear seizes upon the first fat cow that comes within the grasp of his terrible claws," wrote Joseph Warren Revere, who came upon grizzlies in the late 1840s, during his exploration of the Russian River Valley.

While there was active hunting of grizzlies in California before the Gold Rush, "the greatest reduction of numbers was probably between 1849 in 1870," the book continues.

With "Yankee ingenuity," Americans caught grizzlies in box traps, steel leg traps and poisoned them.

Grizzlies were taken for various reasons: some were caught alive for bull and bear fights, others were killed for food or to provide hides or oil. "The majority were slain by man himself for protection or protection of their livestock." Storer and Tevis wrote.

The grizzlies were disappearing. By about the 1880s, grizzlies – once abundant everywhere in the state – had disappeared from the lowlands they dominated for centuries, according to Storer and Tevis.

In all Northern California, the last grizzly shooting occurred in 1902, in Siskiyou County. And the last sighting of the grizzly, statewide, came in the early 1920s, when one was reportedly shot in Fresno County and another was reportedly seen east of there in what is now Sequoia National Park.

Tim Omarzu – who’s 1995 article in Gold Country History was the inspiration and resource for this fascinating tale – said, “… The California grizzly it still prowls the state flag, but it's long gone from the state.”