Tuesday, Aug 27 2013 06:00 AM

Pen in Hand: The giant bears that once roamed the Tehachapi Mountains

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The California Grizzly named "Monarch" was a captive who lived in a zoo in San Francisco for 22 years until its death in 1911.

The California State Flag features a grizzly bear -- note the distinctive hump on its back, which black bears lack.

Grizzlies were big and largely unafraid of humans -- or anything else, for that matter.

Grizzly bears like this mother and her cubs were once a common sight in the Tehachapi Mountains.

A painting of a California Grizzly from the C. Hart Merriam pictorial collection at U. C. Berkeley.

If you could turn back time 175 years and ride a horse through the Tehachapi area, you would find a place that was both familiar and very different. The mountains and general topography would look much the same, though there would be many more large oak trees in the valleys. The only people you'd find would be scattered family groups of Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indians, living in domed willow houses thatched with tule or rabbitbrush. The animal species you encountered would be much the same as now, with a few exceptions. One giant difference would be a creature whose appearance would stop you in your tracks: the California Grizzly Bear (Ursus arctos californicus), which once roamed the Tehachapi Mountains in abundance.

These enormous bears were a now-extinct subspecies of Grizzlies, also known as North American Brown Bears. They were similar in most ways to the Kodiak Brown Bears of Alaska as well as to the grizzlies that still live in the Rocky Mountains. Historically the California Grizzly occupied primarily Southern and Central California, while the much smaller Black Bear (Ursus americanus) lived in mostly in Northern California -- the most southerly region where the ranges of these two bears overlapped was the Tehachapi Mountains, and there are words in the Nüwa language for both grizzly and black bears.

So how common were California Grizzlies in the Tehachapi area prior to the 1850s? Well, both Bear Valley and Bear Mountain were named for the abundant grizzlies found there, and there are eyewitness accounts of as many as 14 grizzly bears feeding in a single oak grove in the Tehachapi Mountains. In the early days of California, grizzlies were not just present, they were numerous, especially in areas that had lots of oak trees to supply the acorns that were one of the bear's staple foods -- travelers wrote that it was common to see 30 to 40 bears a day while riding through oak-dappled valleys and foothills.

And despite their fearsome reputation, grizzlies were described as largely peaceful. Few Indian tribes hunted them, and Native Californians and the huge bears generally avoided each other. Grizzlies would eat meat when it was available, including carrion such as dead elk, deer and even whales that washed ashore along the coast, but they were primarily vegetarians. The overwhelming majority of recorded attacks by California Grizzlies were the result of mother bears protecting their cubs or wounded bears defending themselves against the hunters who had shot them.

There is even an astounding account that happened near the base of the mountains north of Los Angeles in the 1830s, according to Horace Bell in his book "Early Times in Southern California." One day when the husband was away from the house tending to his livestock herds, the young wife went to a spring to wash clothes and was gone for about an hour, leaving her three-year-old unattended. When she returned, she saw to her horror that an immense grizzly was playing with her son, "The two seeming to be on terms of the most affectionate intimacy. The old bear would lay on her back, and would hold the little fellow up in her great paws, and would toss around and tenderly hug him, and the little boy would scream with delight, so pleased he seemed to be with his newfound friend."

When people attacked grizzlies, however, the response was far from gentle: an enraged grizzly was the most ferocious, powerful animal on the continent. The earliest victim of a grizzly in California for which there is a written account is Peter Lebec, a trapper and hunter who was killed on Oct. 17, 1837, about 35 miles southwest of Tehachapi, at what later became the location of Ft. Tejon and the community of Lebec. According to W. F. Edgar, who camped at the site in 1857, "Many [20] years previously some trappers were passing through the canyon, when seeing so many bears, one of the party went off by himself in pursuit of a large grizzly and shot it under a tree, and supposing that he had killed it, went up to it, when it caught and killed him, and his companions buried him under the tree, upon which they cut his epitaph." An area on the side of the large valley oak was hewn flat, and the words "PETER LEBECK killed by X bear Oct 17 1837" were carved into it.

Many years later, on March 15, 1870, a man named John W. Searles was hunting with two companions in the mountains of Kern County, possibly near Walker Pass. Searles heard a bear and was trying to locate it in dense brush when it appeared a few feet away. Searles pointed his gun and fired, and the bear dropped to its forefeet, pawing at its face where it had been powder burned, but it was not seriously injured. Three more times Searles tried to fire, but the cartridges jammed. The bear then rose up on its hind legs, and Searles jammed the rifle in its open jaws, but the bear swatted the gun aside and knocked Searles down.

According to an account by L. A. Ingersoll, "The bear put one foot on Searles' breast and bit off his lower jaw. The next bite was in the throat, severing the windpipe and laying bare the artery as well as the jugular vein, and then it grabbed the flesh of his shoulder, laying bare the bones and cutting a blood vessel. As the bear pulled this mouthful of flesh clear of the bones its foot slipped and Searles rolled over. His coat was all in a hump on his back, and the bear bit into that once and then went away... Searles was as near dead as ever a live man was, but part of his discomfort saved him. It was turning cold rapidly and the wet clothing began to freeze, and this sealed up the torn blood vessels." Despite his wounds, Searles was able to crawl and walk to his horse, ride four miles back to camp, and was taken to the nearest hospital -- in Los Angeles. He spent a long time recovering, but he lived many more years and became superintendent and chief owner of the San Bernardino Borax Company, and it is for him that Searles Lake at Trona is named.

There was also a ravine near Havilah that was named Grizzly Gulch because of the bears, and mining there ceased for years because of some bear attacks. Unfortunately for grizzlies, repeating rifles and the influx of settlers during and after the Gold Rush brought about an end to them, and their numbers dropped from an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 when the Spanish sighted California, to none by about 1925. The California Grizzly lives on in name -- about 200 geographic names in the state include the word "Grizzly" or "Bear" because of grizzlies that once lived there, and in the state flag and the Great Seal of California, which features a grizzly. The bear on the seal was originally was eating wild grapes, but now it stands and looks into the distance.

I find it amazing to stand beneath some of the old valley oaks in the Tehachapi Mountains and realize that California Grizzlies -- big, shaggy, fearless creatures -- once foraged for acorns beneath those very trees, and knew Tehachapi as their ancestral home.

Have a good week.

Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to:

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