February has seen massive snowfalls in California. So that got me thinking about the mountains, which leads to thinking about bears.
Grizzly (a.k.a., brown bears) are large and aggressive. So, they’re not around in California anymore. Black bears are more reasonable — don’t threaten their cubs and they probably won’t attack you. (Warning: probably is not always. For example, a few years ago a guy got eaten by a bear in New Jersey.) So, black bears have replaced grizzly bears in California.
The last grizzly bear in Southern California was killed in Tujunga Canyon in the northeast San Fernando Valley in 1916. But lots of black bears now live just north of Los Angeles, such as this one in Glendale:
Interestingly, the black bear population that lives in the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena appear to be comprised of a sort of prison colony of Yosemite black bears expelled by park rangers.
Grizzly bears, featured on the state flag, were once common in the Transverse Ranges, but were driven to extinction in California in the late 19th century, with one of the last animals in the San Gabriels being shot in 1894 by Walter L. Richardson. Black bears did not naturally exist in the San Gabriel Mountains, but in 1933 eleven black bears from Yosemite Valley that had shown problematic behavior were moved to Southern California and released near Crystal Lake. All black bears in the San Gabriels are believed to be descended from this group.
Do they know for sure? This story could be true.
On the other hand, it’s not impossible to imagine bears walking from the Sierra Nevadas in eastern central California to the Transverse Ranges that loom just north of the Southern California sprawl.
This is, notoriously, the dreariest section of the Pacific Crest Trail. Here’s Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild ineptly attempting to start hiking the PCT at Tehachapi, a good place for a giant wind farm, but a really bad place to start out if you are looking to heal psychic wounds by enjoying the beauties of nature:
People trying to hike all the way to the Canadian border on the Pacific Crest Trail in one year can’t usually get through this miserable stretch until it’s hot in late spring because the High Sierra just to the north can be blocked by snowpack until early summer.
Still the Pacific Crest Trail is only about 125 miles through the high desert, so it’s hardly unimaginable that bears could cross from the Sierra to the San Gabriels in a wet winter. But do California black bears hibernate in winter?
Anyway, if Southern California’s bears are really all descended from the Bad Bears who were exiled from Yosemite in 1933, it would be interesting to know if they carry any “problematic” behavioral traits like their 1933 ancestors, or have instead regressed back to the mean of Sierra bears.
Note: this 2019 article on the importation of bears into Southern California in 1933 by local sportsman and California Fish & Game Commissioner JD Gentry doesn’t mention that the Sierra park rangers were specifically dumping their troublesome bears on the naive SoCal folks. In the first month, one of the newcomer bears ambled 50 miles down out of the mountains to Cucamonga where it was found sampling bee hives and was chased up a eucalyptus tree before being returned to the mountains. The governor fired Gentry was fired as Fish & Game Commissioner.
So the bears probably would have gotten to Southern California on their own eventually, just as they crossed the Central Valley to Monterey County along the coast. A 2009 DNA study of SoCal bears found they were similar enough to Yosemite bears that they might indeed be their direct descendants from 1933.