Even though the grizzly bear has been extinct in California for nearly a century, I’m seeing them more and more around the state.
Hipster teens and adults wear T-shirts or hats bedecked with our state animal in various poses. Liberal and conservative activists use them in memes and campaign posters. Chrysler launched a television commercial campaign for its Pacifica minivan hybrid last fall that starred a wise-talking grizzly, a quail, a desert tortoise, and a rock. (Did you know serpentine is our official state stone? I didn’t!)
For Christmas, I hung on our tree a gold-painted ornament of a grizzly hugging California that I bought at the Los Angeles Central Library gift shop. Even my editor is on the trend: She recently sent me a photo of her cute newborn wearing a grizzly onesie.
Idolizing the bear is nothing new — just look at all the California collegiate teams that use it as a mascot. But this wave of bear love comes at a time when the grizzly is closer to returning than ever before. For once, nostalgia might precede restoration rather than — as usual for us — succeed destruction.
Reintroducing the grizzly to California is one of those proposals — like splitting up the state, or building a water canal up to Oregon so we can steal their water — that never quite goes away. But when Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke expressed support for a plan to restore grizzlies in Washington’s North Cascades, that excited environmentalists who want to lure them farther south.
They used to roam the entire state, from the Sierra Nevada to Southern California, mountains to even the beaches.
Last month, the excellent Pacific Standard magazine devoted its cover to those quixotic efforts. The article imagined a California where grizzlies and humans could coexist, and hinted that we could harvest DNA from a taxidermied grizzly at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and play “Jurassic Park.” To bring them back would be a stunning win for conservationists, just like the campaigns for the California condor and mountain lions in the Los Angeles Basin.
“If there was a way to fit these animals in,” a UC Santa Barbara researcher told Pacific Standard, “then maybe a lot of other things that seemed impossible are possible.”
That’s the triumphant side of the California spirit, but there’s another side: the one that drove the grizzlies out.
They used to roam the entire state, from the Sierra Nevada to Southern California, mountains to even the beaches. The magnificent mammals were the state’s apex predator, and did everything from cull animal populations to turn the soil — stewards of the environment long before John Muir set his eyes on El Capitan.
Native Americans revered the furry giants as a manifestation of the divine. The white man didn’t. Spanish settlers mostly used them as sport in cruel death matches against bulls or dogs. Americans hunted grizzlies under the premise that they stood in the way of progress, until the last known wild one was killed in the 1920s.
The bear’s elimination proved disastrous to ecosystems, and allowed us to build houses where no permanent human habitats were ever meant to stand. But only once we eradicated grizzlies did we mourn what we had done.
To make it up, we proceeded to turn grizzlies into icons. It’s telling that the California Legislature adopted the bear flag as the state’s official banner in 1911, the year that the grizzly depicted on said flag, Monarch, died in captivity.
Destroy, then romanticize — from the Red Cars to Googie architecture to Ishi, it’s a nefarious California tradition. In some ways, it would be better if we just made excuses for our past sins, or even tried to justify them. Instead, we shrug in sadness but don’t learn anything, often to disastrous consequences. (Hello, wildfires!)
And that’s why, even though I’m a willing participant, I find the California grizzly fad a little maddening. There’s nothing cool or redemptive about it. It’s like celebrating any number of state tragedies: Japanese internment, the draining of Tulare Lake, the San Diego Padres.
If we could reintroduce the grizzly to the wild, though, that’s another story. It’ll cost millions, and the bears probably won’t have much of a chance of surviving on their own in a radically changed landscape that’s only getting more volatile with climate change. But they’d serve as living lessons about our past.
Take schoolchildren on field trips, let them gawk and teach them about the grizzlies’ sad history. Let campers and tourists see the bears roam, and have park rangers and signs explain our tendency to ruin paradise.
Eh, who am I kidding? If the grizzlies ever return, everyone will just want to take selfies with them. Watch out for their paws — they hurt.