Grizzly Bears Once Ruled California. Here’s Why They No Longer Roam the State.

Photo by Zden?k Machá?ek

Why does the California State Flag feature an extinct animal, the California grizzly bear, a beast so universally feared it was scientifically classified Ursus horribilis, “terrifying bear?” Believe it or not, California was once home to as many as 10,000 grizzly bears when the first non-Natives reached our shores, which probably made running to the store for a carton of milk a whole different experience. Farmers used to complain you couldn’t ride a horse even a mile without seeing ten grizzly bears.

Before the dams were built to control seasonal flooding and produce hydroelectric energy NorCal’s salmon runs were legendary. Picture hundreds of thousands of salmon stacking up below Burney Falls or Lower Falls on the McCloud River. These would have been natural places to attract legions of hungry bears (like parts of Alaska today).

The first European land exploration of what is now California was the Portola expedition in 1769, and several members recorded grizzly bears in their personal diaries. As non-Native groups began settling in California one of the first thriving industries was cattle ranching, and those big fat cows must have been easy pickin’s for a hungry griz. Many rancheros employed vaqueros to hunt grizzly bears, sometimes even capturing them and pitting them against other animals (like bulls) in a fight to the death.

California grizzly bears sometimes grew to enormous proportions. Newspaper accounts in the 1800s often described bears weighing well over 1,000 pounds. Early missionary Father Pedro Font described one as “horrible, fierce, large and fat.” In 1866 a grizzly bear was killed in Southern California weighing as much as 2,200 pounds. It seemed like California immigrants had declared war on the California grizzly bear, and they used some imaginative ways to eliminate them.

One popular technique was to poison them. A”bait ball” of suet or pig intestines were filled with a lethal dose of strychnine were hung from trees, low enough for bears to get but too high for dogs or children. 

Settlers often paid bounties for bears that routinely killed livestock. California mountain man Seth Kinman claimed to have shot 800 grizzlies in a 20-year period around present-day Humboldt County. Prospector William F. “Grizzly Bill” Holcomb was well-known for hunting grizzlies in San Bernardino County. 

The last hunted California grizzly bear was killed in Tulare County in 1922. Despite alleged later sightings in Sequoia National Park and NorCal’s McCloud River canyon, grizzly bears were seen in California no more. Since 2014 there have been several attempts to reintroduce grizzly bears to California, but none have been approved by the state legislature.

Bet you didn’t know the bear on the California State Flag has a name, “Monarch.” It all began as a crazy publicity stunt by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1896. One of Hearst’s newspapers was called the “Monarch of the Dailies.” Hearst had the bear captured in Ventura County and it lived another 22 years in captivity on display for curious Californians to gawk at. So how did a likeness of Monarch the bear end up on our flag? California did not have an official state flag until 1911, the same year Monarch the bear died.

Before California became part of the United States it was claimed first by Spain and then Mexico. Known as Alta, California in those days, there were two previous attempts to sever ties with Mexico and declare California an independent republic.

The first was led by Juan Alvarado in 1836. Alvarado declared himself Governor and recruited a group of frontiersmen to support him and captured the “capital” in Monterey. Eventually unable to garner the statewide support he needed to break away from Mexico, Alvarado was able to negotiate a compromise with the Mexican government that gave settlers more local control. Alvarado used a flag with a single red star (like Texas) to symbolize his attempted coup, and they incorporated it into the state flag approved in 1911.

The second attempt at leaving Mexico behind happened in 1846 when a small group of settlers again proclaimed California an independent republic. They came up with a flag with a grizzly bear on it symbolizing strength, unyielding resistance, and to scare the Mexicans. But California’s days as an independent republic were limited as the U.S. Army began to occupy the area, which went on to join the union in 1850. 

When it came to designing the state flag legislators wanted to include homage to both revolts for independence. So Alvarado’s red star and the fearsome California grizzly bear were in. Illustrators patterned their rendition of a grizzly bear after Monarch. 

Even though Californians couldn’t live in harmony with grizzly bears, especially 10,000 grizzly bears, they still admired the raw power and fearlessness of the great beasts. And so Monarch, once the largest bear in the world in captivity and one of the last California grizzly bears, ended up on the California State Flag.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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