Bad News Bears

[dcwsb inline="true"]
Ambassador Mi and flag

Mi Ton Teiow, an international ambassador for bear conservation, rests near the commonplace image of a California grizzly.

The last update on the travels of whimsical bear ambassador Mi Ton Teiow focused on a meeting of zoo professionals working for the conservation of polar bears, and an earlier blog described how the American black bear illustrates that our efforts for the conservation of bears can succeed. We can also fail.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the brown bear as a species of Least Concern, meaning that it’s not likely that this species will go extinct in the near future. That’s the good news. And now, the bad news: Even though this is the bear species found across the widest area and the most diverse habitats, and its global population is stable, some brown bear populations are in critical condition. It’s not yet clear whether the Gobi brown bear is a separate subspecies of brown bear or if it’s a population of Himalayan brown bear, but it is clear that the Gobi brown bear is in trouble, with a population of less than 30 individuals due to various impacts of human activities. Conservation and research efforts are underway, but in the face of long-term changes in climate, there’s no guarantee of success.

The Cantabrian brown bear in the Pyrenees Mountains of Europe has been the focus of long-term intensive conservation efforts, but it is still not certain if those efforts will be successful. Other regional populations of brown bears are also the focus of conservation efforts, such as the grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains of the US, but ironically, all around me in San Diego are symbols and images of a bear that once was but never will be again: the California grizzly.

This street sign reminds us that this developed landscape was once good habitat for the California grizzly.

This street sign reminds us that this developed landscape was once good habitat for the California grizzly.

Ambassador Mi recently traveled to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, which is headquartered at the Beckman Center for Conservation Research near Bear Valley Parkway. Bear Valley was named for a famous male California grizzly, a species that has been extinct since around 1924. Yet images of the California grizzly are common and widespread throughout California on the state flag and the state seal. In addition, many people wear clothes bearing (yes, pun intended!) the image of a California grizzly. Many sports teams use the California grizzly as a mascot, and many places are named for it.

The California grizzly faced challenges common to other bear species: habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and high mortality due to unsustainable hunting and deaths due to real or perceived conflict and competition with the modern human economies. Unfortunately for the California grizzly, its populations crashed before modern conservation thinking, science, and planning developed to the point where people in the western US were willing and able to prevent its extinction. When the last California grizzly died, we lost this bear’s value as a part of the functioning ecosystem, and we lost a wonderful product of evolution. If it still survived, the California grizzly would be a symbol of our willingness to share existence with a large carnivore, but when it went extinct, most of us did not recognize the value of large carnivores. We recognize those values now, don’t we?
There is absolutely no doubt that there would have been disadvantages to living near California grizzlies. The negative aspects of living among bears are often forgotten by urban dwellers, as those stories fade with the passage of time and changes in lifestyles. What we’ve remembered are the positive traits and values we project on the bear, so that now the California grizzly lives on only as a cultural cartoon. Can we prevent another bear from becoming a cartoon of a ghost?

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.