Late last month, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke left Northwest wildlife advocates pleasantly surprised when he reignited an environmental impact study on the reintroduction of grizzly bears into Washington’s North Cascades National Park, putting his enthusiastic support behind the regional recovery of what he termed “the great bear.” Resuming the project is, frankly, a rare bright spot for wildlife conservation in Zinke’s tenure as Secretary, which has been rife with some pretty appalling moves for the short and long-term health of wildlife populations.
The successful return of grizzlies to an empty part of their former range could be a big win for the animals and the North Cascades ecosystem. But it’s important to remember that this remote refuge—one of the only grizzly habitats outside of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks—would be a fraction of their former territory. Not long ago, the entire western half of the U.S. was full of grizzlies.
In the early 19th century, grizzly bears were found throughout the Rockies and the Cascades, but also in what seem today like impossible places, including the dry Southwest and the Great Plains. Everywhere from Oklahoma to California to Mexico, the land was rich with giant bears, an estimated 50,000 of them in total.
Encounters with grizzlies on the plains left quite an impression on the first Anglo-American settlers to migrate westward.
“Some of the more notable grizzly mauling incidents happened in western South Dakota,” Frank Van Nuys, professor of history at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, told Earther. “For example, The Revenant is based on Hugh Glass, who got torn up in northwestern South Dakota out on the prairie.”
It was in California, though, that the bears reached their most impressive densities. At the start of California’s famed 1849 gold rush, there were an estimated 10,000 bears within the state. They were most common in the Coast Ranges, but people saw grizzlies all over the place. “They were living in the L.A. basin,” Peter Alagona, an environmental historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is studying the extirpated Californian grizzly, told Earther. “They were living on the coastlines, in places like San Diego and San Francisco.”
It was this attraction to low elevations with lots of resources and mild climates that brought them into conflict with humans, in California and elsewhere. Where people settled, bears were shot en masse.
A century of trappers, bounty-chasing hunters, and mountain men pursuing fame by simply killing lots of bears took its toll. Grizzlies started disappearing from prairies in the early 1800s, and by the close of century, they were basically gone everywhere east of the Rockies. Even in California, with its thousands of bears, the influx of Anglo-Americans during the gold rush coincided with a sharp decline in native grizzlies, which were seen as a particularly dangerous nuisance.
The last Californian grizzly ever captured, Monarch, was a figure of legendary proportions in the state. It died in 1911 after 22 years in captivity, becoming immortalized on the state’s flag. The last credible sighting of a grizzly in California occurred in 1924. In the span of a single human lifetime, California lost every single one of its grizzlies.
By the time the U.S. government revved up an official “predator control” program in 1915—the USDA’s Biological Survey—grizzlies were an afterthought, although they pop up here and there in official records. Typically, government-contracted hunters would go out with a state wildlife official to look for grizzlies, in say Arizona or Colorado, and “miraculously find one, and shoot it.” Often, Van Nuys says, the bears would be officially designated as a “stock-killing bear”—one that has killed livestock like sheep or cattle.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the last grizzlies started to flicker out state by state. By the 30s, grizzlies had vanished from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. By the 50s, they had disappeared in central Idaho. In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, grizzlies held a mythic, almost Bigfoot-like presence for much of the mid-20th century, with the last grizzly killed in 1979 in an almost unbelievable mauling of a hunter. No one had seen a grizzly in the San Juans before that point for 27 years.
As grizzlies faded away, a slow metamorphosis in public perception of the animal unfolded. In the West, grizzlies had always commanded a sense of awe and nobility, says Van Nuys, and even when extinguished by predator control efforts, there was often a sentiment of regret that the mighty “great bear” was too dangerous to live alongside humans.
Early in the 20th century, this sentiment found a home in figures like William H. Wright, a grizzly hunter-turned-naturalist who developed a reverence for the animals, and in pioneering conservationist Enos Mills, who Van Nuys describes as “the John Muir of the Colorado Rockies.” At the same time, a shift was occurring among biologists in their view of predators’ roles in ecosystems. A touchstone for much of this was the revolutionary work of wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold, and later on, research on the imperiled Yellowstone grizzlies by the Craighead brothers.
“You move from a consensus in the late 19th century that predators are basically just there for shootin’, and serve no useful purpose, and are an impediment to progress,” explained Van Nuys. “But burrowing from within, and from without, you start getting different ideas about the biology of these animals and their place in nature.”
In 1975, the cultural shift culminated with grizzlies in the lower 48 receiving federal protection under the still-new Endangered Species Act—and it didn’t come a moment too soon. By then, grizzlies had retreated to less than two percent of their former geographic range, and numbered less than 1,000 animals. Most of these were in northern Idaho and Montana, with only about 130 bears in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.
Today, the bears are making a comeback. There are about 1,500 grizzlies in the lower 48 today, with more than half of them in the Yellowstone-Teton area—a population that, just decades ago, numbered about 100 bears. Most of the others are in the Glacier area in northwestern Montana, with a few dozen more in northern and eastern Idaho. Not only have their numbers grown within protected wilderness areas, but their territory is spreading—bears in western Wyoming are returning to locations not occupied by grizzlies in 100 years. They’re fanning out into southwestern Montana, too.
But populations remain fragmented, which is why reintroduction into the North Cascades is so important. It would be one piece of the puzzle of allowing grizzlies to flow from Yellowstone, to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho and Montana, to Glacier, and into B.C., northern Idaho, and Washington.
“One of the big efforts in grizzly conservation overall is connecting the populations so they’re functioning as one population, instead of like now, where they’re functioning as islands,” Michael Dax, environmental historian and author of Grizzly West, told Earther.
In California, Alagona is thinking about how grizzlies might be able to once again trundle across the Golden State’s wildlands. He’s spearheading the California Grizzly Study Group—a project that started in 2016 as the first study into California grizzlies since 1955. The study group, which has since expanded into collaborations with environmental historians and biologists at Oregon State University, the University of Montana, and the La Brea Tar Pits, aims to understand the historical ecology of the grizzlies—what they ate and where they lived.
For those skeptical that grizzlies could ever live side-by-side with high densities of humans in California, Alagona points out that this is already playing out in Europe. The European Union has roughly the same area as the U.S., with a third more people, and with comparatively small and scattered wilderness areas—yet the EU has approximately 10 times as many brown bears (the same species as grizzlies) living there.
“The place where brown bears can succeed, is where people want them,” said Alagona. “In places where people are antagonistic to this, where they feel like this is a government intrusion and feel like it’s a danger to public safety, then that’s really the rub.”
It appears as though the return of the “great bear” to the North Cascades, at least, has received residents’ blessings, with polling suggesting broad support for reintroduction. A state that just a century ago purged its wildlands of grizzlies is welcoming them back with open arms. Perhaps this time, things will be different.