Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Spare a thought for Orange County’s bears

California grizzly (taxidermied) on display at the Old Orange County Courthouse in 2010 (Photo by author)

For the modern Orange Countian – trapped in a cycle of freeway commutes between condo, school, office, Starbucks and grocery store – it may be hard to believe that this area was once home to great lumbering bears. Many are little aware of the early nature of this land, which has long since been capped with orange groves, oil wells, concrete, and ultimately with housing tracts and shopping centers.  

To experience “old Orange County,” visit our back country: canyons, wetlands, wilderness parks, and of course, the Santa Ana Mountains. In the "shadow of Old Saddleback” one can still find mountain lions, salamanders, mule deer, bats, snakes, badgers, golden eagles, woodpeckers, and innumerable other wild animals. Sycamores line our creeks, oaks grace our mountains and valleys, pines top the ridges, and the chaparral and coastal scrub brush give our rolling hills not just the look but also the distinct smell of Old California.

Some species that once roamed Orange County – like wolves, antelope, and California condors – are gone, but still survive elsewhere. Others, like saber-toothed cats and duck-billed dinosaurs, are extinct. 

Notably, the Santa Ana Mountians were the last refuge of our state animal: The California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus). These bears once roamed our flatlands until a growing human population made them head for the hills. The local Indians thought the deity Chinigchinich sent bears (which they called “Hunwutvum”) down from the mountains to punish people for their transgressions. 
A local citrus crate label, celebrating the grizzly bear.
Bears were a threat to livestock during the Mexican rancho era, and vaqueros made a sport of tracking and lassoing them prior to killing them or dragging them off to participate in gory bull and bear fights. In such fights, a bear and a long-horned bull were chained together in a corral or pit, and spectators would bet on which animal would survive. 

In the decades after California joined the Union, bears were still hunted – sometimes after attacks on livestock, apiaries, or people, and sometimes just for sport. Ultimately, even the mountains weren’t safe for the bears. 

The very last of Orange County’s grizzlies – a trouble-making elderly female, misleadingly nicknamed “Little Black Bear” – was shot by local pioneer Ed Adkinson (with assistance from Andrew Joplin) somewhere above Holy Jim Canyon in 1908. The bear’s skin was displayed in the window of Turner’s Shoe Store in Downtown Santa Ana before being sent to the Smithsonian, along with the bear’s skull. (Turner’s was located at 121 W. 4th St. The display window faced Sycamore St. where Pizza Press is today in the Rankin Building. And yes, that’s only a few yards from the spot where Francisco Torres had been lynched, 16 years earlier.) 

In 1975, while researching his excellent A Boys Book of Bear Stories (Not for Boys): A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains, Orange County historian Jim Sleeper contacted the Smithsonian for more information on Little Black Bear, but they could no longer locate the pelt or skull. Our last California grizzly had vanished completely. It seemed an especially sad ending to an already sad story.

Little Black Bear, photographed in 1908.

But in 2014, while assisting local naturalist Joel Robinson with research, Museum Specialist Esther Langan finally found our furry friend (the bear, not Joel) in a Maryland storage facility of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. So the story of Little Black Bear continues. And so, it would seem, may some of her cousins…

Although the last local California a grizzly died over a century ago, hikers, game wardens, forest service employees, and even marines at Camp Pendleton have reported rare sightings of black bears (Ursus americanus) ever since. According to Sleeper, the bears occasionally seen in modern times are probably descended from escaped pets. One such bear, trained to ride a bicycle, escaped from its owner near Corona in 1973 and into the Santa Ana Mountains. 

In theory, black bears only live about thirty years in the wild. But err on the side of caution: If you hear a bicycle bell in the woods, run.

Local attorney E. E. Keech (right) and friend, bear hunting, circa 1900.

(Earlier versions of this article appeared first in Orange Coast magazine, then in the Dec. 2014 edition of the County Connection, and later in the O.C. Historical Society’s County Courier newsletter.)

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