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California Grizzlies

The California Grizzly, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Los Angeles Almanac Photo at Natural History Museum of Los Angees County

Its scientific name is Ursus arctos californicus. It is the official state animal of California and prominently featured in the California state flag. Once commonly encountered in the Los Angeles area and estimated to have numbered as many as 10,000 throughout California, the species came to be targeted by Spanish/Mexican ranchers for preying on their livestock. Vaqueros hunted and captured California Grizzlies to pit them against bulls in community spectacles. By the early 20th Century, the California Grizzly had been hunted to extinction.

The last known California Grizzly roaming Southern California was shot and killed on October 26, 1916, by farmer Cornelius B. Johnson in the Sunland area of Los Angeles County. Johnson was aggravated by damage the bear was inflicting on his crops. He was also concerned that its tracks indicated it to be a large animal, therefore, a threat to the safety of his wife and two daughters. Over three days, Johnson managed to track down and shoot the 250-pound bear. Because grizzlies were already, by that time, a rare sight in California, Johnson had never actually seen one until the encounter. It was the second-to-last California Grizzly killed in the wild (the last said to be in Tulare County in 1922). The last reported sighting of a California Grizzly in the wild was in Sequoia National Park in 1924.

Johnson's Grizzly was not only the last of its species known to roam Southern California, but, for the next 17 years, the last known bear of any species to freely roam anywhere in Southern California. In 1933, San Bernardino businessman J. Dale Gentry, seeking to restore the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains to their "wilder" states, arranged for 28 problem black bears from Yosemite to be relocated to the mountains of Southern California. Normally, Black Bears stayed at higher elevations to minimize encounters with the more agressive Grizzly, but finding their new Southern California environment to be "Grizzly-free," quickly expanded their territory to include today's suburban neighborhoods (and their swimming pools).

There are, at present, serious proposals to reintroduce grizzlies to California through back-breeding, cloning and genetic engineering.

Diorama of Grizzly Bear hunting by early Los Angeles vaqueros, circa 1830s. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.