Could grizzly bears return to the southern Sierra Nevada?

Margaret Moran
Today, 1,850 wild grizzly bears live in the United States, spread over four states — Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Courtesy Center for Biological Diversity |

TRUCKEE, Calif. — It’s the state animal and it’s on the flag — the California grizzly bear. And while that specific species is now extinct, one conservation organization is calling for the return of the grizzly bear to the Golden State.

This summer, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the federal agency’s recovery plan for grizzly bears, including returning them to their former stomping grounds across the West.

“Grizzly bears are one of the true icons of the American West, yet today they live in a paltry 4 percent of the lands where they used to roam,” Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “We shouldn’t be closing the book on grizzly recovery, but beginning a new chapter — one where these amazing animals live wherever there’s good habitat for them across the West.”

The petition, which calls for Fish and Wildlife to revise and update its 1993 grizzly bear recovery plan, identifies an additional 110,000 square miles of potential habitat in California’s southern Sierra Nevada; the Mogollon Rim and Gila Wilderness complex in Arizona and New Mexico; the Grand Canyon; and Utah’s Uinta Mountains.

Today, 1,850 wild grizzly bears live in the United States, spread over four states — Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington, said Chris Servheen, grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Center for Biological Diversity would like to see that number rise to at least 4,000 and up to 6,000 spread across habitat areas to ensure their long-term survival.

Since 1975, the grizzly bear has been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, which aims to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems on which they depend.

“If we’re serious about recovering grizzly bears, we need more populations around the West and more connections between them, so they don’t fall prey to inbreeding and so they have a chance of adapting to a warming world,” Greenwald said. “If we want these incredible bears around for centuries to come, we’ve still got a lot of work left to do.”

According to the petition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has pursued a fragmented approach to grizzly bear recovery that fails to meet the intention of the Endangered Species Act to recover species across significant portions of their historic range.

Servheen said there are no additional resources to start new programs in new locations, since all available funding and personnel are dedicated to the service’s current recovery work.

“Any bears placed in new areas have to come from habitats with similar foods and habitats to maximize the probability of success,” he said. “Many areas of historic range have no similar habitats with grizzlies in them today, (which) means there are not any bears to move into such former habitat areas.”

Historically, as many as 100,000 grizzly bears once lived in western North America. Yet, within 200 years of European settlement, the grizzly population dwindled to hundreds due to slaughter.

While a California grizzly shot in 1922 in Tulare County is considered the last state grizzly, there were reports in 1924 of a sighting in what is now Sequoia National Park.

Today, Greenwald said he thinks Californians would be open to the idea of reintroducing grizzly bears to the state, since it’s “a wildlife-friendly state.”

Ann Bryant, executive director of the Lake Tahoe-based BEAR League, isn’t so sure.

“(People) can’t even co-exist with black bears,” she said. “How in the world do we think we can co-exist with grizzlies? There’s just no room, no mentality for it.”

Grizzlies have a reputation of being aggressive and territorial, especially females when cubs are involved. Documented grizzly attacks on humans have occurred over the past several decades, some resulting in death.

“The chances of getting mauled by a grizzly bear is (very small),” Greenwald said. “It is much more dangerous to drive your car to the store.”

The petition identifies 7,747 square miles of wilderness in the southern Sierra remote enough to support the omnivorous bruin. As for whether the region would have enough food supply to support the bear, additional study is needed, Greenwald said.

The diet of grizzly bears consists of nuts, berries, fruit, leaves, roots and animals. Males can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, and the bears are considered apex predators, with humans being their biggest threat.

Human tolerance is key for this idea to work, Bryant said.

“You’ve got to have a willing reception of that thing, and we’re not ready for that,” she said. “The mentality here right now is fear-based. Grizzlies probably invoke the most amount of fear. … We’ve got a long way to go before this is anything I would take seriously.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is legally required to respond to the petition.

Greenwald said the Center for Biological Diversity has yet to hear back from the service since filing the petition in June.

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