Once, maybe early in her life when the people were still few, she could roam Orange County from the beach to the mountains and back.
With her razor-sharp claws, powered by the muscles that form that massive hump, the bear probably tore up trees, hillsides and meadows in search of food.
On the beach, the grizzly probably dined on the carcass of seals or whales. In creeks like San Mateo or Trabuco, the wet years might have blessed her with steelhead trout. And, when luck really went her way, there was carrion, which she might have eaten with a condor circling overhead.
The bear was killed in Trabuco Canyon on Jan. 5, 1908, after being lured into a trap by a beehive attached to a railroad tie. According to one account of the hunt, the four ranchers and their three dogs followed the bear and the bait for five miles before dispatching the bruin with three shots.
She reportedly weighed just over 600 pounds and was slightly over 6 feet in length. The locals knew her as either Clubfoot or Moccasin John.
Now she goes by specimen number 156594. Her skin and skull are preserved in an airtight metal cabinet in an annex of the Smithsonian Museum in Silver Hill, Md. The building, the size of three football fields, houses a half-million other examples of America’s native wildlife, including specimen 160155, a grizzly killed near the head of San Onofre Canyon in 1900 or 1901.
Although they now reside in a place loosely resembling the warehouse in the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” these are--at least in my own dim view--special bears. Why?
When Moccasin John died--when that “green fire” was extinguished, as Aldo Leopold once said of a wolf--a line was crossed. Although a grizzly was reported to have been killed in 1922 in Fresno County, no evidence of that bear remains.
And no other grizzly bear was ever found again in California. The Orange County bears might have been the last.
The initial stretch of Trabuco Canyon Road--although road is a most generous description--was clearly not intended for Toyota Tercels.
So, I park and decide to walk. Almost immediately, I pass a crushed skeleton of a car sitting in the middle of the road. Nearby, a handwritten sign says that on a recent cleanup day, 80 tons of trash were removed from the canyon.
In a perfect world, I’d like to report that 91 years after the fact, I found the exact spot where the last California grizzly lay down and died. But about all I knew is the bear died in or around Holy Jim Canyon, so I settled for something a bit less adventuresome, but a little more thoughtful: I spent some time thinking about the difference between an environment with grizzlies and one without them.
Before we hike farther, a bit of grizzly bear history.
Ursus arctos horribilis was once found throughout much of the western United States and today the bears are still found in Yellowstone and Glacier National Park and the surrounding environs.
The bears were listed as threatened by the U.S. government in the 1970s, but their populations in both parks seems to have grown in recent years, although there’s considerable controversy about just how much their numbers have improved and the long-term viability of the populations.
Very little work has ever been done concerning grizzlies in California. The one and only substantial study of the bears was a book written by two University of California professors in 1955 titled “California Grizzly.” (It’s hard to find at bookstores, but can be ordered online at https://www.amazon.com). Virtually everything written on the bears in California since is sourced from this book.
No one really knows how many bears there were in California. The authors of “California Grizzly” make an educated guess of 10,000, but there’s no way to check that figure. Certainly, though, there is no shortage of historical accounts of the bears. The bears, especially in the early years of California, were not rare.
They were also big. And scary. Really scary. In the days of travel by foot, the topography of the state made it difficult for settlers to get from Point A to Point B without stumbling on the bears. Although California, and much of the west, had few people, those people had tremendous impacts--especially the ranchers, who had brought 2 million sheep and cattle into the state by 1860.
By 1870, grizzlies were rare in California. At the same time, a lot of other wildlife in the state was having problems. In the Central Valley, elk and antelope were almost entirely wiped out by commercial hunters. Bighorn sheep fell victim to the hunters and disease brought by domestic sheep. Even deer saw their numbers plummet as a result of unregulated hunting.
In the end, the grizzlies were doomed by their loss of habitat, food and their slow rate of reproduction. In Oregon, they were gone by 1894. Utah--1922. Texas--1890. New Mexico--early 1930s. Arizona--1930s or ‘40s. Remarkably, one held on in Colorado until 1979--and a few stubbornly believe there’s another lurking in the mountains.
An old document from the California Fish and Game Department says it best:
“The grizzly was not afforded protection and as the land developed, if there was a conflict, the grizzly was killed. It was primarily a valley and low foothill country animal and would, or could not, recede from the encroachment of civilization.”
Sometimes all you have to do is look around.
In a half-day in Trabuco Canyon, I’m never out of earshot of birds. Early on, I see a hawk and later, a woodpecker that generously poses for a photo that I still manage to bungle.
In Trabuco Creek, which is well-shaded and thus holds water throughout the summer, there’s a small trout that was obviously planted.
There are lush riparian areas, scruffy hillsides and a few gorgeous oak savannas. Along a creek, I watch a line of ants parade on a downed log--good bear food.
With the exception of a handful of squirrels, no other mammals show themselves. At the parking area to the Holy Jim Trail, there is, however, a huge sign warning that mountain lions still live in the area--and the next day a friend of mine sees one nearby.
And then there’s the chaparral, that thick tangle of botanical hell. At one point, along the Holy Jim, I decide to see how far I can hike up a side canyon. I want to see what the bear saw.
About 10 feet up the canyon, I feel like I’ve sprouted branches. This is not a pleasant place to be and I quickly retreat to the trail, picturing the headline: “Reporter Becomes State’s First Tick Fatality.”
It takes some imagination, but not a lot to see how a bear made a living here. In the late 1800s, Orange County was mostly cattle country--easy pickings for Old Grizz. A few hardy souls lived in the hills, including Holy Jim, a beekeeper and jack-of-all-trades who was actually known to the locals as Cussin’ Jim. On that fatal last day, the ranchers apparently chased the bear up the canyon before bagging it just below Saddleback Peak.
It’s a big area and in the middle of a weekday a quiet place. It’s hard to imagine a couple of holdout bears having much, if any, effect on the place.
“Those few bears or that one bear probably didn’t have much of an impact,” says Mary Thomas, a wildlife biologist with the Cleveland National Forest. “But if you think about bears in California over a lot of space and time, the impact was probably huge.”
Trabuco Canyon, and the Santa Anas around it, are now basically an island. With much of the county falling under the domain of suburbia, Trabuco Canyon is a relic, a muted reminder of what it once was.
“There were species that came down from the mountains and moved around,” says Thomas. “You don’t see that anymore. . . . It makes it a lot more difficult, for example, for a mountain lion to find food because the area for its prey is also shrinking. The area for all these animals is shrinking and there’s less food for all these other species to fight over.”
In other words, it’s becoming more homogenous. For years, scientists have been arguing what happens to biodiversity on islands, both at sea and inland. Although there is still disagreement over the particulars, there is widespread agreement on this: The amount of species diversity decreases. Some species manage to hang on. Others don’t.
There is, of course, another side to the story. California is a splendid place to live--I care about the environment, but at the same time I’m not planning to move back to Ohio, stop driving, watering my garden or throwing out trash any time soon.
The state’s biodiversity although diminished is still abundant. Trabuco Canyon, too, is quite beautiful. There is only one thing missing. Not the bears--but recognition the bears existed. If we are all going to live here and change these places, at the very least it would be nice to see one reminder of how they used to be not so long ago.
Somewhere, there has to be an artist in this county who would be willing to sculpt a life-size statue of a bear and mount it somewhere in the canyon (with the forest service’s permission, of course). Yes, it sounds silly and meaningless and even reeks a little of granola muncher-type philosophy. But so what?
Put the statue anywhere, and they’ll come. They’ll come to see a beautiful place and to read and think about the message on the statue’s pedestal:"Orange County--The Grizzlies Were Here.”