California State Stuff II

CAL BEARS

In the last column I began reviewing the California State “things.”
We covered the state flower (the California poppy), the state bird
(the California quail) and the state trees (coast redwood and the
giant sequoia). And so we continue.

State Animal: Grizzly Bear. Exactly how many wild grizzlies are
left in California? You’re right, none. These magnificent predators
once roamed all over the state, munching on manzanita berries,
acorns, salmon, elephant seal pups, deer and occasionally a Miwok.
How sad that the symbol of our state has been permanently removed
from the landscape.

An early biologist described over 75 different species of grizzly
bears found in North America. Now most taxonomists have lumped all
of those grizzly types with the European brown bear (the common
circus bear) and the Alaskan brown bear into one species, Ursus
arctos. Physical and color variations merely reflect different
races of the same bear. Before the arrival of Europeans, grizzly
bears ranged nearly all across North America. From the Mississippi
River to the Pacific Ocean and from northern Mexico through Canada
and Alaska, these animals reigned supreme. But now in the lower 48
states there are fewer than 900 animals surviving in remote areas
of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington. The last California
grizzly was shot at Horse Corral Meadows in the mountains of Tulare
County in 1922.

Grizzlies are the largest land carnivore on the planet. One Alaskan
Kodiak bear weighed 1500 lbs and was over nine feet tall. However
most grizzlies, like the ones that once inhabited California, are
much smaller than the Alaskan coastal variety. Males average about
400 lbs. and females 230 lbs. When emerging from their winter sleep
bears feed on grasses, sedges and, if they are lucky, a
winter-killed deer. These grizzlies spend an inordinate amount of
time hunting ground squirrels and other small rodents and may
occasionally kill a larger animal. So even though the bears are
considered meat eaters, 80% of their diet is vegetable matter or
carrion.

In California the native peoples lived in close proximity to
grizzlies. They were rightly frightened of them. Recently I heard
a story about the bear shamans of the Wintun people. These medicine
men wore a belt full of gourds that made a sound when they ran.
This noise imitated the sound of the guts of a running grizzly
bear. Imagine a life where one actually knew what the guts of a
running grizzly bear sounded like.

I have hiked in grizzly country in Alaska and I must confess it is
a bit unnerving to take a nature walk in an area where the nature
can eat you. There is always an edge, a certain uncertainty. You
must not carry food, you must not be quiet and you must not be
unarmed. Fortunately human flesh is not considered haute cuisine by
the grizzly but the animals are still unpredictable. Grizzlies can
run 50 yards in three seconds, they can swim rapidly, and they can
easily destroy a small tree. There is no running and no escape from
these bears. In this place the grizzly is king and only a gun
allows humans the illusion of security. It is too bad that here in
California there is no longer room for modern man and the grizzly
bear.

To be continued.

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Skills

Posted on

August 22, 2009