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THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
| PERSPECTIVE

Grizzlies' Last Stand

May 28, 1999|STEVE HYMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once, maybe early in her life when the people were still few, she could roam Orange County from the beach to the mountains and back.

With her razor-sharp claws, powered by the muscles that form that massive hump, the bear probably tore up trees, hillsides and meadows in search of food.

On the beach, the grizzly probably dined on the carcass of seals or whales. In creeks like San Mateo or Trabuco, the wet years might have blessed her with steelhead trout. And, when luck really went her way, there was carrion, which she might have eaten with a condor circling overhead.

The bear was killed in Trabuco Canyon on Jan. 5, 1908, after being lured into a trap by a beehive attached to a railroad tie. According to one account of the hunt, the four ranchers and their three dogs followed the bear and the bait for five miles before dispatching the bruin with three shots.

She reportedly weighed just over 600 pounds and was slightly over 6 feet in length. The locals knew her as either Clubfoot or Moccasin John.

Now she goes by specimen number 156594. Her skin and skull are preserved in an airtight metal cabinet in an annex of the Smithsonian Museum in Silver Hill, Md. The building, the size of three football fields, houses a half-million other examples of America's native wildlife, including specimen 160155, a grizzly killed near the head of San Onofre Canyon in 1900 or 1901.

Although they now reside in a place loosely resembling the warehouse in the final scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," these are--at least in my own dim view--special bears. Why?

When Moccasin John died--when that "green fire" was extinguished, as Aldo Leopold once said of a wolf--a line was crossed. Although a grizzly was reported to have been killed in 1922 in Fresno County, no evidence of that bear remains.

And no other grizzly bear was ever found again in California. The Orange County bears might have been the last.

*

The initial stretch of Trabuco Canyon Road--although road is a most generous description--was clearly not intended for Toyota Tercels.

So, I park and decide to walk. Almost immediately, I pass a crushed skeleton of a car sitting in the middle of the road. Nearby, a handwritten sign says that on a recent cleanup day, 80 tons of trash were removed from the canyon.

In a perfect world, I'd like to report that 91 years after the fact, I found the exact spot where the last California grizzly lay down and died. But about all I knew is the bear died in or around Holy Jim Canyon, so I settled for something a bit less adventuresome, but a little more thoughtful: I spent some time thinking about the difference between an environment with grizzlies and one without them.

*

Before we hike farther, a bit of grizzly bear history.

Ursus arctos horribilis was once found throughout much of the western United States and today the bears are still found in Yellowstone and Glacier National Park and the surrounding environs.

The bears were listed as threatened by the U.S. government in the 1970s, but their populations in both parks seems to have grown in recent years, although there's considerable controversy about just how much their numbers have improved and the long-term viability of the populations.

Very little work has ever been done concerning grizzlies in California. The one and only substantial study of the bears was a book written by two University of California professors in 1955 titled "California Grizzly." (It's hard to find at bookstores, but can be ordered online at http://www.amazon.com). Virtually everything written on the bears in California since is sourced from this book.

No one really knows how many bears there were in California. The authors of "California Grizzly" make an educated guess of 10,000, but there's no way to check that figure. Certainly, though, there is no shortage of historical accounts of the bears. The bears, especially in the early years of California, were not rare.

They were also big. And scary. Really scary. In the days of travel by foot, the topography of the state made it difficult for settlers to get from Point A to Point B without stumbling on the bears. Although California, and much of the west, had few people, those people had tremendous impacts--especially the ranchers, who had brought 2 million sheep and cattle into the state by 1860.

By 1870, grizzlies were rare in California. At the same time, a lot of other wildlife in the state was having problems. In the Central Valley, elk and antelope were almost entirely wiped out by commercial hunters. Bighorn sheep fell victim to the hunters and disease brought by domestic sheep. Even deer saw their numbers plummet as a result of unregulated hunting.

In the end, the grizzlies were doomed by their loss of habitat, food and their slow rate of reproduction. In Oregon, they were gone by 1894. Utah--1922. Texas--1890. New Mexico--early 1930s. Arizona--1930s or '40s. Remarkably, one held on in Colorado until 1979--and a few stubbornly believe there's another lurking in the mountains.

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