Before newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst built a sprawling castle in San Simeon, before he was elected to Congress, before he amassed a famous collection of European art, he had eyes for something equally bold but even more reckless. He sent a newspaper reporter out to capture a grizzly bear – if they still existed. It was 1889, after modern society had brought the species to the brink of extinction.
After a six-month search, San Francisco Examiner reporter Allen Kelley and his team had their bear: A group of trappers, reportedly using honey and mutton, had lured a grizzly into a cage, and Kelley’s team then bought that 1,100-pound bear. He was named Monarch – for the Hearst newspaper tagline, “Monarch of the Dailies” – and transported by rail to San Francisco, where he spent the next 22 years in captivity, mostly at the San Francisco Zoo, on display for thousands. He became the model for the bear depicted on the California state flag.
The last known California grizzly was seen in 1924, but Monarch’s likeness persists on the state flag.
It’s in part that flag that’s guiding a group of researchers to revisit the grizzly bear’s place in California – and consider whether it’s a good idea to reintroduce the species.
“They are our symbol, our state flag,” says Alexis Mychajliw, a postdoctoral research fellow in holocene paleoecology at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. “It’s our identity as a state. To me, that is really sad we don’t have the identity of our state anymore, because of our own actions.”
Mychajliw is one of more than 40 members of the growing California Grizzly Research Network, an interdisciplinary group devoted to studying the genetics, ecology, history and geography of California grizzlies. Depending on what they find – and how their research informs public opinion – it’s possible that grizzlies could be reintroduced to the state.
“Instead of making guesses, we can actually look at the fossil record,” Mychajliw says. “Instead of trying to project from present day, we can look and say, OK how did grizzly bears interact with black bears; where did they prefer to live; were they shaped by forces like climate, or other bears?”
Mychajliw is studying the composition of grizzly bones to understand what they ate. She has fragments from a few dozen skeletons across the state – including pieces from the collection at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, where she speaks March 21 – and she’s had access to just one full skeleton, the only one that’s known: Monarch’s.
Today, Monarch’s taxidermied skin remains in San Francisco at the California Academy of Sciences. His skeleton is in UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.
Mychajliw reflects on that continuation of the cruelty that Monarch suffered in life: “He’s split across the bay, even in death.”
BEFORE HUMANS OR BLACK BEARS OR GRIZZLY BEARS ROAMED NORTH AMERICA, many fiercer species did. During the Pleistocene era – which began some 2.6 million years ago then ended with the last ice age about 11,700 years ago – mammoths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves (larger than modern wolves) and short-faced bears, which reached 2,500 pounds – more than double the size of grizzlies – were all part of the ecosystem. Grizzly bears haven’t been here much longer than people, and for much of their coexistence, the species thrived, even when people did not.
It’s unknown how many grizzlies lived alongside the estimated 350,000 indigenous California people before European colonization. As Europeans settled and Native American civilizations began to collapse, grizzlies likely feasted on nuts and other food resources left behind, and had the addition of European livestock as a food source.
During the gold rush, guesses put the grizzly population at 10,000 – about the same density as present-day Alaska, where 40,000 grizzly bears live in a land mass four times the size.
“They were doing quite well,” says Peter Alagona, an associate professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara and the founder/facilitator of the Grizzly Research Network. “It was Anglo-American colonization – shooting, poisoning, other forms of persecution – that drove the population from 10,000 to zero within 75 years, one human lifetime.”
Remnants of one grizzly trap remain at Palo Corona Regional Park, in a grove of redwood trees next to a creek. Most likely trappers would’ve transported the bears to town for infamous bull vs. bear battles.
There was a time, not that long ago, that Alagona viewed the history of the California grizzly as nothing more than a cautionary tale, illustrating how humans can so readily disrupt ecological balance. Then, in 2014, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity submitted a petition to the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife calling upon the agency to make a plan to help the species recover across its native range. (The grizzly was been listed as a threatened species in most of North America since 1975.)
“The Service has failed to develop recovery strategies for ecosystems that still contain substantial and sufficient suitable habitat, which is not only an abdication of the Service’s responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act as a legal matter, but leaves grizzly bears endangered across significant portions of their range as a biological fact,” the petition stated.
That petition was a non-starter, but Alagona tuned in. There was a viable question about how to best protect a threatened species, which does still exist in North America in a few pockets, including in Idaho, Montana, the Northern Cascades of Washington, and in Yellowstone National Park.
“It’s something I entered into with some trepidation,” Alagona says. “It’s fascinating, but potentially controversial, and even a little scary for some folks. The petition was really just a reflection of how some people were starting to think differently about a possible future for coexistence of wildlife.”
That was the genesis of the California Grizzly Research Network, which now counts about four dozen researchers at half a dozen institutions among its ranks. Grant funding is enabling Alagona to focus increasingly on the grizzly project, while others in different disciplines dive deeply into answering questions about grizzlies: What was their range? What did they eat? How would they do if reintroduced to California today?
Their findings will eventually lead to a different question that’s only partly scientific: Should we reintroduce the grizzly bear?
“The goal of our group is to provide information,” Alagona says, “in order to have an intelligent, civil, evidence-based discussion. There’s no equation that can spit out the right answer. It’s got to be part of a democratic process.
“The reason we don’t have these animals here now is because a small number of people, mainly white men, took it into their own hands to eliminate these animals. There was no civil discussion, there was no democratic process. There was none of that. We can do those things that were kind of taken away from us. We can study the issue, we can talk about it in a civil way.”
BEFORE DAWN ONE MORNING LAST SEPTEMBER, Mychajliw and a staff geologist from the La Brea Tar Pits left Los Angeles in a van wrapped in images of prehistoric creatures, like saber-toothed cats and mammoths. After a stop in Santa Barbara for bagels and in San Luis Obispo to return a borrowed grizzly bear skull to Cal Poly, they arrived at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History by early afternoon.
Mychajliw was guided to the basement, where the jaws and fragments of skulls of several grizzly bears are stored. Her work there was fast: She chooses a spot with no museum label or glue and where she’s least likely to damage the bone, then uses a dremel to extract a fingernail-sized piece of bone. The whole process takes just about 10 minutes.
Because grizzlies were nearly extinct as museums began collecting specimens like this, very few remain, maybe 100. Mychajliw has been all over the state, visiting museums and universities and private collections of hunters in pursuit of bone samples. (And in some cases beyond – samples from Yale and Harvard might be Monterey County bears.)
Back in a lab at UC Irvine, Mychajliw demineralizes the bone, a process that results in spongy collagen. Next, it’s freeze-dried “into what looks like cotton candy – whipped and white.” She can extract pieces using tweezers to examine the ratio of carbon to nitrogen to get a picture of what a particular bear ate.
But the bone sample still needs to be dated, which requires an additional step: super-heating the cotton candy-like substance until it becomes a gas (“you have a glass vial that is filled with just gas and it’s terrifying – you could inhale your sample,” Mychajliw says). It’s first sealed with a flame torch in a quartz tube, then heated, then baked overnight and transformed into graphite.
She then runs tests on the bone-turned-graphite to determine the age of the bone, and the bear it came from.
Because she hasn’t yet published her current research on the bone samples, including those from the P.G. museum, Mychajliw won’t say definitively what she’s finding, but she offers a rough preview: As omnivores, California grizzly bears consumed a mix of plants and small mammals, as well as meat scavenged from larger animals.
In Alaska, they’ve been observed feeding on whale carcasses – something that might’ve also happened in coastal Monterey County, Mychajliw says.
“They are important components of ecosystems,” she says. “They go eat fish, then leave part of the carcass. Through that behavior, they act as link between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and fertilize the forest.
“They could be helping to shape the forest and we just don’t know it. There are lots of reasons large mammals shape the overall health of an ecosystem.”
BEFORE THE CALIFORNIA GRIZZLY WENT EXTINCT, it was one of 15 subspecies of Ursus arctos, or brown bears. Now the California grizzly, along with two other brown bears, is considered extinct. But another 12 subspecies – like the Ussuri brown bear in Japan, Eurasian brown bear in Europe and Syrian brown bear in the Middle East – still exist.
The omnivorous and opportunistic species lives all over the planet, from high mountains to coast to desert, with a diet adapted to each environment. Alagona is particularly interested in how brown bears have continued to do well in Europe, even more densely populated than the U.S., as an example of how humans and brown bears can coexist.
“We don’t need to be afraid of animals as long as we respect them,” he says.
He blames Hollywood for portraying grizzlies as attackers, when there are only two circumstances in which attacks on humans are likely: when bears are emboldened by access to human food, or when a person encounters a protective mom and cub. They’re less likely than wolves to go for cattle, Alagona says, though they might take sheep.
If bears did come back to California, part of the decision-making process on where to put them would be based on habitat availability. It would also be based on where people would be willing to accept them.
There are four potential areas: the Sierra Nevada; northeastern California, on the Modoc Plateau – where gray wolves began reappearing starting in 2011; the northwest, in the Klamath-Trinity area; and the Los Padres National Forest, which stretches from Southern California all the way to Monterey County.
Alagona is talking to a colleague in St. Petersburg, Russia, about how humans have been able to ranch and live alongside grizzlies in remote areas. “We can live with these animals, we really can,” he says. “We do it in Europe and Alaska. Educating people is a huge part of management. We just have to want to, and commit to doing it.”
Even if grizzlies are reintroduced and they do well, most Californians will never see one. The overwhelming majority of the state’s population is urban. But those millions of people who might never encounter a grizzly are stakeholders too, Alagona says: “What I’m really after here is to expand the constituency of people who care about this, so it’s not a bunch of old white dudes in a conference room, but society as a whole.”
He sees an opportunity not to punt to over-extended bureaucrats in the Fish and Wildlife Service, but to invite scientists – and the public – to do the work of conservation planning. Whether or not this exercise leads to reintroducing grizzly bears, it’s a chance to reframe the public process as it relates to conservation decisions.
And that process is in large part about public perception. And depending on how that unfolds, there is a reasonable chance, Alagona says, that grizzlies could be reintroduced to California in his lifetime.
“If you would’ve asked me two years ago, I would’ve said no way, this is an academic exercise,” he says. “Now, here’s what I think: The main impediment is not ecological, it’s not genetic. It’s about imagination. It’s about whether people are willing to suspend their disbelief and imagine an alternative possible future. People in Europe don’t have to do that, because the bears have been there the whole time.
“When I started this project, I was very skeptical,” Alagona says. “Now that I’ve been working on this for three years, I’ve come to believe it’s not nearly as crazy as it originally sounded.”