Ursus arctos californicus in the Santa Barbara, Natural History Museum (Vahe Martirosyan CC BY-SA 2.0)

Scientific name:  Ursus arctos californicus (Merriam, 1896

Description:  A large bear, said to have been similar to the coastal grizzlies of Alaska.  The skull was long and narrow with a massive underjaw.  Pelage typically, but not exclusively, brownish yellow (hence the alternative common name “California golden bear”).

Range:  Believed to have originally occupied all but the southeast and extreme northeast of what is present-day California.  Increasingly became confined to the mountain regions away from the presence of humans.

C. Hart Merriam's hand-colored map showing the distribution of the seven subspecies of the California Grizzly he identified and described. It is now widely agreed that these were in fact variations of a single subspecies; “Ursus arctos californicus”

Habitat:  Open meadows, forests, sub-alpine mountain regions, tundra and coastal regions.  They would have travelled to areas where food was abundant according to seasonal variations.

Life span:  Probably twenty to thirty years in the wild.

Food:  The bears were omnivorous with a diet that included grasses, seeds, berries, roots, nuts, acorns, small and large mammals including elk and deer, fish and carrion including beached whale carcasses.

Behaviour:  The bears reached sexual maturity between the ages of four and seven years.  Mating occurred between mid-June and July.  The bears went into winter dens usually in October or November and typically emerged in April or May.  Cubs were born in the den most likely in January.  Litters were probably between one and four cubs, most commonly of two or three.  They remained with the mother for two to three years during which time she would not become pregnant again.  Except for mating and for mothers with cubs, California grizzlies were solitary but probably congregated in groups where there are plentiful sources of food, such as at salmon spawning grounds and whale carcasses.

Reasons for extinction:  As the human population of California increased conflicts between bears and humans escalated with the bears killing livestock and attacking settlers.  The bears were hunted and killed for sport but also captured and used in bear and bull fights.  The last hunted California grizzly bear was shot in Tulare County in August 1922 and the last reported sighting was in 1924 in Sequoia National Park. 


California Grizzly by Tracy I Storer & Lloyd P Tevis, Jr. (California, 1996).  First published in 1955 this book remains as relevant as ever.  Arguably the definitive account of the California grizzly bear.

Check out this Google map and click on the markers for more on the history of brown bears in California.

Page updated 12 February 2021