Times Past

California grizzly bear leaves a lasting legacy

“Roping the Bear at Santa Margarita Rancho” by James Walker.
“Roping the Bear at Santa Margarita Rancho” by James Walker. Courtesy photo

“Car flipped after hitting the bear, but the 21-year-old Grover Beach woman was not injured.”

The headline in last Sunday’s Tribune reminds us of just how close to nature we live. It brought back memories of my own incredulity when, in the early 1970s, a student called to report that she had missed my 8 a.m. midterm because she had “hit a bear on the Grade.”

When I confirmed the student’s story by calling the California Highway Patrol, I asked, “Just how often does this happen?”

The CHP put me in touch with Caltrans. Yes, Highway 101 near Tassajara Creek Road is particularly hazardous. Thousands of animals migrate along a path following the east and west Cuesta Ridge areas.

Sometime after 2000, Caltrans placed black and yellow signs at both ends of the Grade alerting motorists to watch for bears and deer crossing the highway. Since then, Liz and I have always pointed out these signs to visitors.

A visitor from England couldn’t believe that we had bears until one appeared here in San Luis Obispo. He’d read that we killed off all the grizzly bears in California in the 19th century. I said that the California grizzly (Ursus arctos californicus) was one of 86 species of the American brown bear (or grizzly bears). The last grizzly in Southern and Central California was shot in either Tulare or Fresno counties in August 1922. DNA testing has shown that its closest living cousin is Alaska’s Kodiak bear.

The heaviest recorded grizzly bear shot in California was in what became Bear Valley (now Valley Center) in 1866. It weighed 2,200 pounds, which explains how the startled Lewis and Clark expedition reacted to their early encounters with what was named Ursus arctos horribilis in 1805 in the eastern Rocky Mountains.

Clark described the grizzly as “verry large and a turrible looking animal.” Clark and another member of the expedition fired 10 shots at it before it died.

The bear that created last week’s accident near Santa Margarita was Ursus americanus californiensis, a species of the American brown bear weighing about 450 pounds.

But our English visitor was correct about the killing off of bears in the 19th century. The grizzly bear was the largest creature in California in historic times. Distinguished by its size, weight, brown fur and humped shoulders, the bear was feared, hunted and honored by Native Americans, early explorers, trappers and miners.

The bear population in La Cañada de los Osos y Pecho y Islay had become too large in June 1772 and attacked Native American villages. The Native Americans were very grateful when Pedro Fages shot a large number to support Missions San Antonio, Carmel and the Presidio at Monterey.

The California grizzly did leave a lasting legacy both on our state flag and the American stock market.

At the end of the mission period, Mexican rancheros began using this noble creature for entertainment.

A bear would be captured in the wild and dragged on a stiff bull’s hide to a plaza in one of the Mission pueblos or to a corral at a rancho. The left rear paw of the bear would then be tethered to the right front leg of an enormous bull. The frightened animals would then fight to the death. The bear would usually be gored to death by the upward motion of the bull’s horns. The stoop-shouldered bear aggravated its own fate by downward thrusts, often impaling its paunch on the sharpened horns.

A San Francisco merchant banker observed a “bull and bear” fight in our region. He later coined the phrases “bull market” for a period of rising values for stocks and commodities. A “bear market” was when values decline like the downward thrusts of the bear.

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You can learn more about grizzly bears and the early Mission days. The Mission Docents are planning a spring training on the following Saturdays: April 16, 23, 30, May 7 and 14. Come to learn about our early history and the peoples who pioneered at this Mission.

We will meet at 9:30 a.m. in the Serra Room, formerly the refectory of the Immaculate Heart Sisters’ convent in the Parish Office complex adjacent the inner garden on Palm Street. Sessions will be approximately 90 minutes. Please join us for these informative sessions. There is no commitment to be a docent if you attend, but we think you will want to join what has become a community of history lovers.

Dan Kreiger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and a past president of the California Mission Studies Association.