For an animal that no longer exists, the California grizzly bear looms large in the state's collective consciousness. When the Spanish conducted their first extensive inland explorations in the 18th century, they found this huge carnivore foraging widely. But by 1925 the bear was extinct throughout the state.
And yet, as author Peter Alagona notes in After the Grizzly,
these vanished bears remain very much with us today. Indeed, as the foremost emblem of the state flag, they continue to inspire us - and chide us for our sins. Their disappearance says much about the price of progress, and it haunts us with the realization that things might have been different if our forebears had been less ambitious, greedy, and grasping (let's face it, less Californian
) as they subdued the land.
But After the Grizzly
isn't a simple elegy for California's disappearing species. The great value of this book is the texture and depth it brings to an issue that is usually presented as dueling polemics. Though the book examines the fate of five iconic and rare (or in the case of the grizzly, extinct) California species, it isn't so much about charismatic critters versus developers per se as it is about the way rare beasts have driven science, law, and land-use management - first in California, then the nation. Meticulously researched and rendered in clear, engaging prose, the book serves as both a wonk's guide to the evolution of endangered-species policy and a compelling history of the decline, fall, and partial resurrection of wild habitat and wildlife in California.
Alagona, an assistant professor of history and environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara, dispels some cherished myths about the state's endangered species. His prime example focuses on when the Spaniards first settled what is now California, and grizzlies weren't terribly common. Perhaps fewer than 3,000 of the great bears lived in the territory. And despite the reputation of California's approximately 350,000 Indians for passivity and a low-key, subsistence lifestyle, the natives apparently competed fiercely with the grizzly for food, given that they both liked to eat the same things: salmon, game, acorns, and grass seed.
But once California's indigenes were subdued - that is to say, nearly eliminated - the populations of all of California's carnivorous species, including grizzlies, boomed. In 1848, on the cusp of California's statehood, the population of grizzlies topped out at about 10,000.
From there, of course, the decline was precipitous, and ultimately came to a full stop. Indeed, the other species Alagona addresses in his book - the California condor, the San Joaquin kit fox, the Mojave Desert tortoise, and the delta smelt - have fared only marginally better. Still, these species have not disappeared. Alagona intimates that this is due largely to California's role as a cynosure in both conservation biology and environmental law.
According to Alagona, the concept of conservation ethics was largely refined in California through the work of Joseph Grinnell, the founding director (1908-1939) of UC Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Grinnell and his colleague Harold Bryant promoted the notion that "it's ethically wrong," as Grinnell wrote in 1914, "to jeopardize the existence of any animal species."
California was also the incubator for policies that have since become standard templates for wildlife conservation, including the development of broad-based plans to preserve entire habitats and suites of species rather than just a given endangered bird, mammal, or fish.
Finally, Alagona presents California as an arena in which some of the nation's greatest environmental legal battles have been - and are currently being - fought. The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) (16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-1544) lies at the heart of many of these contests.
A law that turned out to be much stronger than even its drafters anticipated (and perhaps intended), the ESA has influenced urban planning, agricultural and forestry policy, and water use - most particularly in California, where the law remains generally popular. (This despite attempts to gut the act by some California legislators, most notably Richard Pombo of Tracy, a U.S. congressman from 1993 to 2007.)
Though Alagona applauds the intent of the act, he notes the ESA often ends up satisfying no one, in that it imposes a heavy regulatory burden with few satisfactory outcomes.
Alagona writes near the conclusion of his book: "[S]ome species, while not fully recovered, have made substantial progress. For many others, however, achieving even moderate recovery goals could be decades away - or may never happen. ... [T]he ESA, which Congress conceived as a temporary federal receivership program, is becoming a more permanent administrative arrangement."
So what's needed now? Alagona suggests rethinking the entire idea of habitat, i.e., creating "sustainable landscapes" that serve both wildlife and humanity. But that won't be easy. "Defining what that means and figuring out how to achieve it," he writes, "is one of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century."
Glen Martin is a freelance environmental writer based in Santa Rosa.