Los Angeles Almanac Logo
Home | All Almanac Topics | Environment & Animals

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 upset by damage an animal was inflicting on his crops and alarmed that its tracks indicated it to be a large bear, therefore, a threat to the safety of his wife and two daughters. Over three days, Johnson managed to track down and shoot what turned out to be a 250-pound California Grizzly. Because grizzlies were already, by that time, a rare sight in California, Johnson had never actually seen one until the encounter. It ended up being 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, and Los Angeles oil magnate Earl Gilmore (established Farmer's Market on his Fairfax property), both seated on the California State Fish and Game Commission, sought to restore the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains to their "wilder" states. They arranged for 28 problem black bears to be relocated from Yosemite to the mountains of Southern California. One bear died enroute, but eleven were released near Crystal Lake in the Angeles National Forest and the rest in the Santa Ana Mountains and the San Bernardino Mountains near Big Bear Lake. Normally, Black Bears remained at higher mountain elevations to minimize encounters with the more agressive Grizzly. However, finding their new Southern California environment to be "Grizzly-free," the new bear residents quickly expanded their territory that now includes today's suburban neighborhoods and their swimming pools.

There have been serious proposals to reintroduce the California Grizzly from DNA extracted from remains of the last California Grizzly in captivity and the applicaton of back-breeding, cloning and genetic engineering. In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the agency's plans for recovering the grizzly bear population, including reintroducing them to remote areas throughout the American West, including up to 500 grizzly bears in California's Sierra Nevada. These proposals, however, so far appear to not be making any progress.

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