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Could California bring back grizzly bears? UCSB researcher says it's "not impossible"

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Grizzly bears lived throughout California until the 1920s when they were eliminated by hunting, poisoning, and trapping. Prior to the Gold Rush (1850s), as many as 10,000 roamed the state.

Grizzly bears lived throughout California until the 1920s. And now, the California Grizzly Research Network out of UC Santa Barbara is studying not only the history of this iconic bear but its future, including a potential comeback.

UCSB environmental historian and grizzly researcher Dr. Peter Alagona said we don’t have grizzlies in California anymore, even though the bear was once so common it’s on our state flag.

“On the eve of the Gold Rush, there was about one grizzly for every 11 people in California, if you can believe that,” Alagona said.

Alagona said about 10,000 grizzlies lived in the state before the Gold Rush. The last credible sighting of a grizzly bear in California was in 1924 in Sequoia National Park. He said the bears were eliminated, not by habitat loss or food scarcity, but by humans.

“They were really driven out of California primarily by persecution, so hunting, poisoning, and trapping during a period prior to the passage of laws that would have protected them,” he said.

Alagona has studied grizzly bears — also called brown bears — for seven years. In 2016, a group of researchers from UCSB started the California Grizzly Research Network to answer questions about the history and the future of grizzly bears.

Alagona said there’s a debate brewing among conservationists, ecologists, and historians about whether to reintroduce grizzly bears to California.

“For a lot of people, I think even talking about the idea of bringing grizzly bears back to California can sound crazy, and I was actually one of those people once upon a time,” he said.

Over the years, he said his thinking evolved from a purely academic pursuit to more of a mission. One that’s not necessarily about reintroducing grizzlies, but about coexistence in general.

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California's state flag with the image of a grizzly bear.

“The mission is to get people thinking about what it would be like to fully restore ecosystems, to imagine a world in which our ecological environment isn’t just declining, in which it’s regenerating, in which we’re rehabilitating it and restoring it,” he said.

Alagona recognizes that people have strong reactions of fascination and fear when it comes to grizzly bears. He said even though bear attacks are extremely rare, when they do happen, they get a lot of press.

“Historically, if you look throughout North America, I think over the last century, there's an average of about one bear-related fatality in North America every decade, overall. One,” he said.

In 1975 grizzly bears were added to the endangered species list as threatened. At that time, the grizzly population had dwindled to 1,000 in the lower 48 states. Alagona said with protections in place, some states are now seeing those numbers grow.

“In the 48 lower U.S. states, there are bears in four areas but they’re all in the northern Rockies or north Cascades, so Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Washington State,” Alagona said.

California has had success with other species recovery programs like the California condor, beavers, and Tule elk, however, Alagona said reintroducing grizzlies to California would be difficult and require an extended period of planning.

“It would require a lot of steps. It would require action by the federal and state governments, and it would require buy-in from a lot of people, particularly people who live in local communities near where animals could be reintroduced, but it’s not impossible,” he said.

To follow the debate and learn more about California grizzly bears, go to the UCSB CA Grizzly Research Network.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.