Jeremy Miller plays with the idea in the Pacific Standard.
University of Californiaâ€“Santa Barbara researcher Peter Alagona has other ideas about what constitutes viable grizzly habitat. Alagona says that the grizzly was also known as the “chaparral bear” because it was found in greatest numbers not in California’s high country but in its Coast Ranges. In his 2013 book After the Grizzly, Alagona paints a vivid picture of these coastal bears: “Grizzlies scavenged the carcasses of beached marine mammals, grazed on perennial grasses and seeds, gathered berries, and foraged for fruits and nuts. They rooted around like pigs in search of roots and bulbs, and after the introduction of European hogs, the bears ate them too. At times and places of abundant foodâ€”such as along rivers during steelhead spawning seasons or in oak woodlands during acorn mast yearsâ€”grizzlies congregated in large numbers. Such a varied and plentiful diet produced some enormous animals.”
In late March of 2017, Alagona and an interdisciplinary team of more than a dozen professors, lecturers, and graduate students made their first foray into the Sedgwick Reserve, a roughly 6,000-acre parcel of open space an hour north of Santa Barbara that is owned and managed by the University of California. The rolling hills were green, and bloomed with a colorful assortment of flowers. To the south, over a series of undulating hillsides, lay the Pacific Ocean. Beyond the property’s northwest boundary lay the former Neverland Ranch, the infamous estate of the late Michael Jackson.
Known as the California Grizzly Study Group, the team’s fieldwork is focused on gaining a better understanding of how the California grizzly lived in these coastal regions before human interference. As it turns out, reconstructing the way of life of an absent omnivorous animal largely means reconstructing its diet. One common misunderstanding, says Alagona (the group’s head and founding member), is that grizzlies are bloodthirsty predators just waiting for a hiker to snack on. “The California grizzly was an omnivorous opportunistâ€”it ate almost anything and everything that was available,” wrote Tevis and Storer in California Grizzly. “In this respect the big bear was something like the house rat, the domestic pig, and even modern man.” …
We continued upward, to a ridgeline covered in a vibrant green rock called serpentinite. Below us unfolded a pastoral landscape of orchards and vine-stitched hillsides with small towns and farmhouses tucked between. The scenery was of a distinctly Mediterranean cast, which may explain our conversation’s turn toward Europe. There, Alagona noted, European brown bears (European cousins of the American grizzly) have recovered in areas very close to cities, including in Abruzzo National Park, only two hours by car from downtown Romeâ€”closer than we were to downtown Los Angeles.
Demographic shifts and social changes have also played a key role in the brown bearâ€™s resurgence overseas. “One of the reasons you have predators coming back to Europeâ€”wolves, bears, lynx, and wolverinesâ€”is partly because Europe has become more urbanized, and parts of the countryside are emptying out,” Alagona said. “You also have a change in thinking and attitudes. People are imagining different futures, which is also vitally important.”
Alagona gestured to the high peaks of the Dick Smith and Sespe wilderness areas, rising to over 7,000 feet. He noted that, even in these wilderness areasâ€”which are small by U.S. standardsâ€”one can find more continuous, roadless “wild” land than nearly anywhere in Europe. “When the Europeans look at our situation here, they think we have an ungodly amount of space. They are working in a completely different model,” he said, ticking off the essential differences on his fingers: Lots of people. Smaller land area. No wilderness. More bears.
In the U.S., we tend to operate in an either-or paradigm when it comes to conservation. And this historically has been a key stumbling block for the restoration of many large American mammals, including grizzly bears. Alagona points to the Central Valley, which has been transformed almost entirely into an unbroken industrial-scale agricultural landscape. And then there are the wilderness areas of the Sierra, which are off limits to all development. It is this bifurcation, he says, that has greatly influenced our thinking about what belongs where, what is “wild” and “not wild.” “We tend to think that animals belong in wilderness,” he said.
Europeans, on the other hand, have a less doctrinaire way of categorizing landscapes and, consequently, a more fluid way of looking at what constitutes habitat. “The Europeans are working to create more nature reserves, but they are limited in what they can do,” Alagona said. “And so, by definition, conservation has to occur in these human-dominated landscapes.” …
As Alagona said, it was easier to imagine the risks than the rewards. Any discussion of grizzly reintroduction is moot, he said, until we recognize that a reintroduction of this sort is not really about animal management but people management. “It’s not really clear whether having more bears in the world is actually good for bears, or whether it results in an increase in, say, ‘bear happiness,'” he said. “So if you can’t make that calculation, then you have to start looking at peopleâ€”notably, what people want and what they are willing to risk or give up to have something else that is of value to them.”
That public reappraisal of the value of wildlife can happenâ€”and sometimes very quickly. “When mountain lions started showing back up in Southern California in the 1980s and ’90s, people also freaked out,” Alagona said. “Now the mountain lion has become the mascot of Los Angeles.” He believes that the same might be true for the California grizzly. “If there was a way to fit these animals in,” he said, “then maybe a lot of other things that seemed impossible are possible.”
The next morning Owen and I rose at sun-up and plodded uptrail, toward the summit of Reyes Peak, which loomed 2,500 feet above. As we climbed the switchbacks, the full dimensions of the landscape became apparent below. Arid hillsides covered in chaparral and veined with arroyos ran in orderly rows toward the misty horizon. Plenty of space for a large omnivorous mammal to roam, it seemed.
In Spanish, Chorro Grande means “big flow.” But when we arrived at the trail’s namesake spring, it was dry. We plodded up one last steep section, through a stand of tall Ponderosa pines, before reaching the ridgeline. From the dry summit ridge, we could see the expanse of the Coast Range extending below us and, just beyond, the humped masses of the Channel Islands looming offshore. To the south, in the next valley, flowed Sespe Creek, one of the range’s permanent water sources and one of the last undammed waterways in Southern California. Just out of view, beyond the endless furrows of rolling ridgelines, lay the concrete wilderness of Los Angeles.
As I jotted notes, Owen sat on a large rock surveying the terrain through binoculars. “Dad, I can see bears up here,” he said matter-of-factly. I took him literally, and asked with slight concern if he’d spotted a black bear somewhere below us.
“No,” he said, smiling in the full California sun. “I mean someday. I think a grizzly would like it here.”
Grizzly bears and self-entitled hipsters in t shirts and Bermuda shorts sharing the wilderness a hop, skip, and a jump from densely populated suburbs?
Old Ephraim traveling down the arroyos in the dry three-quarters of the year from the Santa Cruz Mountains right into Palo Alto and Atherton?
Big, hungry bears munching cyclists and joggers in the San Gabriels bordering LA?
What the heck!
The tree-hugging California environmental whackos want those bears back, and the bears will want breakfast. I call that a win/win.
HT: The News Junkie.
High time to start working on restoring the extinct sabre-tooth tigers found in those La Brea tar pits to Los Angeles as well!