While working on my most recent novel set in the mountains of eastern California, for one scene I needed a predator. I considered both cougars and black bears, animals still found in California. A quick review of how a cougar stalks and attacks its prey convinced me it was not my best choice for my scene.
A black bear—a misnomer since this species of bear can be anywhere from black to golden brown in color—can be a formidable foe, but not enough. Living as close to Yosemite National Park as I do, I know about the bear problems that can erupt there, mainly black bears raiding ice chests and tearing open cars to get at food left where it can be seen. However, it is known that if people run across a black bear, as long as they don’t have it cornered to where there is no escape route, a lot of shouting, arm-waving and creating loud noises such as beating on the bottom a pan with a metal spoon will almost always scare a black bear away.
I was a counselor for a church girls camp up in Clark’s Fork in the Sierra Nevada Mountains one year when they had a problem with two black bears that raided the dumpster every night. There were strict rules on not allowing the girls at night to keep candy or treats in the A-frame shelters that were open on one end. Every night, the girls were expected to put their candy and treats they brought from home in a sack with their name on it and bring it to the camp kitchen where it could be secured until morning.
Do you have any idea how well twelve year-old girls DO NOT listen to warnings of danger when it means not having access to their candy? The first night in camp, while almost asleep, I detected the distinct sounds and smells of candy being unwrapped and consumed. I got out of my sleeping bag, gathered up all the offending wrappers and the remaining candy, demanded of the other girls they produce any stash they might have on hand, and marched a sackful to the middle of a big open field where I left it. I warned them if they pulled that stunt again they were sleeping outside the A-frame. If a bear was going to come after their candy, or even the smell of candy on their breaths, because they refused to follow the safety rules, I didn’t want it to get anywhere near me. That was the end of the secret nighttime candy stashing. I was not invited back as a youth counselor the following year.
Back to my dilemma of deciding on a credible predator for my characters to face. I ruled out both mountain lions and black bears. Only a grizzly bear would do. The question was, were there still grizzly bears alive in California in 1884?
The California grizzly (Ursus arctos californicus) was a subspecies of the grizzly, the very large North American brown bear. "Grizzly" could have meant "grizzled" (that is, with golden and grey tips of the hair) or "fear-inspiring". Nonetheless, after careful study, naturalist George Ord formally classified it in 1815 – not for its hair, but for its character – as Ursus horribilis ("terrifying bear"). Genetically, North American grizzlies are closely related; in size and coloring, the California grizzly was much like the grizzly of the southern coast of Alaska, shown above. In California, it was particularly admired for its beauty, size, and strength.
The first recorded encounters of California grizzlies by the Europeans are in the diaries kept by several members of the 1769 Portola expedition, first exploration by land of what is now the state of California. Several place names that include the Spanish word for bear (oso) trace their origins back to that first expedition.
As the settled frontier of New Spain was extended northward, settlers began to populate California and establish large cattle herds as the main industry. The grizzly bears killed livestock and so became enemies of the rancheros. Vaqueros hunted the grizzlies, sometimes roping and capturing them to be displayed in public battles with bulls. This popular spectator sport inspired betting as to whether the bear or the bull would win.
The Euro-Americans found a large population of grizzlies throughout the state. Grizzlies were perceived as a dire threat to life and property, and were killed in large numbers. By the early 1900s, few grizzlies and little of their prime habitat in the Central Valley where I currently live remained.
A Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), is very similar physiologically to the California grizzly, despite the pronounced humpback.
The grizzly became a symbol of the Bear Flag Republic, a moniker that was attached to the short-lived attempt by a group of American settlers to break away from Mexico in 1846. Critics often pointed out that this quickly-assembled flag looked more like a pig than a bear. However the men of the Bear Flag Revolt intended it to be not just a bear, but a grizzly bear, a symbol in that part of the world of something powerful and to be feared if crossed. Later, this rebel flag became the basis for the state flag of California. California became known as the "Bear State."
The California Grizzly Bear, the largest and most powerful of the bears, thrived in the state for centuries. Some grew to a formidable height of 8 feet and weighed 2,000 pounds, according to a history of California written in 1898. When European immigrants arrived in the state, it was estimated that 10,000 grizzlies inhabited most regions of California. As humans began to populate the state, the grizzly stood its ground, refusing to retreat in the face of advancing civilization.
Less than 75 years after the discovery of gold, however, every grizzly in California had been tracked down and killed. Although the grizzly had roamed the state at will for 300 years, the gold rush of 1849 rang the death knell for the bear.
It has been said that the appearance of the repeating rifle in 1848 spelled death for the grizzly. Initially hunted by miners and others because it was considered dangerous, the grizzly was then mercilessly hunted for sport and for its warm fur. Settlers in the late 1800s commonly shot and poisoned bears to protect their livestock. The last hunted California grizzly was shot in Tulare County, California, in August 1922, although no body, skeleton or pelt was ever produced. Two years later in 1924, what was thought to be a grizzly was spotted in Sequoia National Park for the last time, and thereafter, grizzlies were never seen again in California.
Today, the California grizzly (Ursus arctos californicus) is an extinct subspecies of the grizzly, the very large North American brown bear. However, the memory as a powerful predator and a formidable foe lives on by its presence on the California state flag.
Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical western romances. Five of her books in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, , Big Meadows Valentine, A Resurrected Heart, Her Independent Spirit, Haunted by Love and Bridgeport Holiday Brides, have been published by Prairie Rose Publications and are available. A sixth full-size novel, Luck Joy Bride, is in the works.
Wikipedia-California Grizzly Bears