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Lawsuit Aims To Bring Study On Sierra Grizzly Recovery Possibilities

Bear stands on log with a cub.
Frank van Manen
U.S. Geological Survey
Grizzly bears in California died off shortly after the state finalized its flag, which is emblazoned with a grizzly.

In the lower 48 states, grizzly bears used to roam across much of the West, but now, they’re confined to areas mostly in Montana and Wyoming. They’re considered endangered.

The U.S. government has recently agreed to review their endangered status, due to a controversial lawsuit which ultimately aims to build a plan to eventually bring grizzly bears to more places, including the Sierra Nevada.

There’s a big, proud grizzly bear on the California state flag. Some find that bear peculiar. Sure, there are black bears here in California, but a grizzly bear? They haven’t been seen in the state since since the 1920s  — nearly a century ago — but back in the day, grizzlies were abundant across the state.

The United States with nearly half of the country outlined as a historic range for grizzly bears.
Credit Bree Zender / KUNR
Source: Lisa Landenburger, US Geological Survey, 2000

“They were probably pretty numerous in areas near streams that had migrating fish, salmon and steelhead,” said Peter Alagona, an environmental historian at UC Santa Barbara. “I’m really thinking about pine nuts, pinyon pines on the east side of the Sierra.”

Alagona said white settlers hunted and poisoned the bears out of existence in the state.

“Our suit is seeking a recovery plan,” said Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity. The organization is suing the U.S. Department of the Interior and is seeking a recovery plan, which would require a new study of Western landscapes.

The US Department of the Interior settled a small portion of the lawsuit, and will now revisit the status of grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act.


Greenwald referred to an example elsewhere of a successful reintroduction.

“When wolves were brought back to Yellowstone, it had a lot of surprising results,” Greenwald said. That’s because the new predators controlled coyote populations. “It helped fox populations and it helped pronghorn populations."

If bringing a predator back to Yellowstone has been beneficial, Greenwald wants to know if it could be possible for the grizzly bear.

This isn’t a new idea. The U.S. Department of the Interior last drew up a recovery plan for expanding the population outside of Montana and Wyoming back in the early 1990s, much of which did not end up actually happening; however, that plan is now outdated. The department did not respond to KUNR’s requests for an interview.

When ideas of recovery have been suggested, Western communities have traditionally drifted toward skepticism. They’re not wrong to have second thoughts — grizzly bears tend to display more aggressive behaviors than most other types of bears.

California has changed quite a bit since a grizzly was last seen as hundreds of thousands of people have moved into the state. And some of those people are clashing with the black bears that are there now.

At the headquarters of the Bear League in West Lake Tahoe, workers are running a hotline for people to report bear concerns in the Tahoe area. Ann Bryant is one of the founders of the organization, and because she has first hand knowledge with how inexperienced humans are with bears in general, she’s worried.

“I don’t think that could possibly happen,” Bryant said. “There is no place in the state of California where there would be wildlands like that that would sustain a healthy population of grizzlies, where they would be safe from humans.”

That’s because when the bears come too close to humans, they're often deemed too dangerous or a public nuisance. Some people call animal control or 911 — which may lead to the death of that bear.

While Bryant is completely against the idea of reintroduction, Alagona wants more information.

“Our position, if we do have a position then, is that we need to know more in order to have a more intelligent conversation,” Alagona said.

According to settlement documents, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must review the status of grizzly bears by early next year.

Bree Zender is a former host and reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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