Monday, October 14, 2019

The California Grizzly by Zina Abbott


 I’m almost home from the Women Writing the West conference, but not yet. We are stopped for the day, so time to get my blog post up. Since I am pressed for time, I will share most of the information from a previous post from March, 2017 that was published in the Prairie Rose Publications blog.

While working on my most recently-published novel set in the mountains of eastern California, for one scene I needed a predator. I considered both cougars and black bears, animals still found in California. A quick review of how a cougar stalks and attacks its prey convinced me it was not my best choice for my scene. 

Black Bear - Yellowstone National Park
A black bear—a misnomer since this species of bear can be anywhere from black to golden brown in color—can be a formidable foe, but not enough. Living as close to Yosemite National Park as I do, I know about the bear problems that can erupt there, mainly black bears raiding ice chests and tearing open cars to get at food left where it can be seen. However, it is known that if people run across a black bear, as long as they don’t have it cornered to where there is no escape route, a lot of shouting, arm-waving and creating loud noises such as beating on the bottom a pan with a metal spoon will almost always scare a black bear away.

When deciding on a credible predator for my characters to face. I ruled out both mountain lions and black bears. Only a grizzly bear would do. The question was, were there still grizzly bears alive in California in 1884? 

Grizzly bear from Denali National Park

The California grizzly (Ursus arctos californicus) was a subspecies of the grizzly, the very large North American brown bear. "Grizzly" could have meant "grizzled" (that is, with golden and grey tips of the hair) or "fear-inspiring". Nonetheless, after careful study, naturalist George Ord formally classified it in 1815 – not for its hair, but for its character – as Ursus horribilis ("terrifying bear"). Genetically, North American grizzlies are closely related; in size and coloring, the California grizzly was much like the grizzly of the southern coast of Alaska, shown above. In California, it was particularly admired for its beauty, size, and strength. 

Lassoing a Grizzly

The first recorded encounters of California grizzlies by the Europeans are in the diaries kept by several members of the 1769 Portola expedition, first exploration by land of what is now the state of California. Several place names that include the Spanish word for bear (oso) trace their origins back to that first expedition.
As the settled frontier of New Spain was extended northward, settlers began to populate California and establish large cattle herds as the main industry. The grizzly bears killed livestock and so became enemies of the rancheros. Vaqueros hunted the grizzlies, sometimes roping and capturing them to be displayed in public battles with bulls. This popular spectator sport inspired betting as to whether the bear or the bull would win.

The Euro-Americans found a large population of grizzlies throughout the state. Grizzlies were perceived as a dire threat to life and property, and were killed in large numbers. By the early 1900s, few grizzlies and little of their prime habitat in the Central Valley where I currently live remained.

Kodiak Grizzly bear-similar in appearance to a California Grizzly

A Kodiak bear (Ursus arctos middendorffi), is very similar physiologically to the California grizzly, despite the pronounced humpback.

Replica of the first California Bear Flag (Republic of California)
The grizzly became a symbol of the Bear Flag Republic, a moniker that was attached to the short-lived attempt by a group of American settlers to break away from Mexico in 1846. Critics often pointed out that this quickly-assembled flag looked more like a pig than a bear. However the men of the Bear Flag Revolt intended it to be not just a bear, but a grizzly bear, a symbol in that part of the world of something powerful and to be feared if crossed. Later, this rebel flag became the basis for the state flag of California. California became known as the "Bear State."
California State flag today

The California Grizzly Bear, the largest and most powerful of the bears, thrived in the state for centuries. Some grew to a formidable height of 8 feet and weighed 2,000 pounds, according to a history of California written in 1898. When European immigrants arrived in the state, it was estimated that 10,000 grizzlies inhabited most regions of California. As humans began to populate the state, the grizzly stood its ground, refusing to retreat in the face of advancing civilization.

James "Grizzly" Adams

Less than 75 years after the discovery of gold, however, every grizzly in California had been tracked down and killed. Although the grizzly had roamed the state at will for 300 years, the gold rush of 1849 rang the death knell for the bear. 

It has been said that the appearance of the repeating rifle in 1848 spelled death for the grizzly. Initially hunted by miners and others because it was considered dangerous, the grizzly was then mercilessly hunted for sport and for its warm fur. Settlers in the late 1800s commonly shot and poisoned bears to protect their livestock. The last hunted California grizzly was shot in Tulare County, California, in August 1922, although no body, skeleton or pelt was ever produced. Two years later in 1924, what was thought to be a grizzly was spotted in Sequoia National Park for the last time, and thereafter, grizzlies were never seen again in California.

Today, the California grizzly (Ursus arctos californicus) is an extinct subspecies of the grizzly, the very large North American brown bear. However, the memory as a powerful predator and a formidable foe lives on by its presence on the California state flag.

The book in which my grizzly bear scene appears is Escape from Gold Mountain. Here is an excerpt:

          Luke knew about bears. Where he had come from, many young boys proved their bravery and earned their manhood by hunting down and killing bears. He had heard multiple stories about the traits and the dangers bears posed. He had faced one himself while still in Minnesota.
          However, this predator was not like the black bears he knew back home. Although black bears could be any color from black to golden brown, this one, medium brown in color, possessed different characteristics. It carried itself differently, with shoulders higher than its hind legs. A distinct hump rose at the back of its neck.
          Luke suspected he was looking at a grizzly bear. He had once seen a newspaper illustration of one. The great hulking beasts at one time had roamed throughout California. These days, they were mostly gone from populated regions. Although hunted until very few remained in the state, the few that did exist had abandoned their native valley habitat to the west where they had thrived earlier in the century. They now roamed high in the sparsely-inhabited Sierra Nevada Mountains.
          Grizzlies were reputed to be an aggressive species. Unlike black bears that avoided contact with humans, attempts to drive grizzlies away with shouts or gunfire tended to incite rather than deter them. They attack rather than flee.
          To prepare for hibernation, this bear had probably followed the creek in hope of finding pools deep enough to hold fish. Along the way, it probably stripped off any berries still clinging to bushes this late in the year. Luke suspected that, although the bear could not reach the half of a chicken he had hung high in a tree, the scent might have drawn the grizzly. If so, it would not be easily detracted from its goal.
          A multitude of thoughts chased each other through Luke’s mind. If he ran towards the cabin with Loi, the movement of fleeing prey would attract the bear and could prompt it to attack. In spite of their awkward-appearing bulk, bears ran faster than humans. They could outrun and bring down a horse.
          “Shorty, take Ling Loi house!”
          The panic in her voice shook Luke to his core, but he knew he dared not do what she demanded. Tex’s cabin smelled of food. Although the log walls were sturdy enough, if the bear wanted in, neither the door nor the roof were strong enough to keep it out. In addition, even if they made it inside and barricaded the door, their flight would draw the grizzly to his mare trapped in the pole barn, an easy target for the hulking predator.
          The grizzly reared up on its hind legs and roared. In addition to the scent of meat and the panicked bugling of the horse, it had spotted the pair at the top of the hill.
          “Climb up the tree, Loi. It’s the only way.”

Escape from Gold Mountain is now offered digitally exclusively on Amazon and in the Kindle Unlimited program.  The book is also available in print format on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Here are the purchase links:

Wikipedia-California Grizzly Bears

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