Wiped out: a chronicle of the decline of California’s grizzly bear

Special to The Times

When Teddy “Big Stick” Roosevelt decided to hold his fire on a junior black bear while on a hunting trip in 1902, he launched the teddy bear craze — and higher approval ratings for a creature that until then had been regarded as little more than a savage set of jaws terrorizing progress. But it was too late for the California grizzly, which already had been decimated by a blizzard of bravado and lead, until they were wiped out early in the 20th century. After millenniums of residency in California, it took only decades to exterminate the bear named after its “grizzle,” or gray-tinged fur. The grizzly image was consigned to legend and NBA mascot service.

Now an ambitious account of the grizzly-human experience in California, “Bear in Mind” (Heyday Books), reconstructs how the most dominant creature in the West became easy prey to myth and Manifest Destiny. Excerpts from diaries, letters and articles, plus a colorful array of rare engravings and illustrations, show how the grizzly went from a figure of awe and respect among Native Americans and early explorers to a diabolical monster in the way of the good burghers of civilization. As the book’s editor, Susan Snyder, explains, “Grizzlies epitomized freedom and untamed nature, and Californians sought to conquer that wilderness and its lawlessness.”

It’s hard to believe now, but grizzlies once roamed so far and wide across the state that they called even Santa Monica Mountain canyons and the coast of Santa Barbara home. In the early 1850s, one settler complained that grizzlies in Southern California were “more plentiful than pigs … as to make the rearing of cattle utterly impossible.”


The end came with the breech-loading rifle and the Gold Rush, which sent a floodtide of trigger-happy prospectors to claim every rock and twig in grizzly territory. From here it was a short trip to bear rugs, den massacres, Grizzly Adams’ bear circus and arenas staging bear-versus-bull fights.

What lingers from this tale is that it’s not yesterday’s folly. It’s hard to chalk up the grizzly rub-out to a less enlightened time when the prime mover of the story is still going strong: human myopia and the belief that there is an infinite supply of whatever serves the immediate needs of shaky egos in search of supremacy.