Wolves, Bears and Jaguars: Lost Animals of the Bay Area


Cunningham rummaged through old photographs and maps, consulted oil paintings of European settlers, and researched indigenous knowledge.

“I tried to gather as much scientific and cultural information as possible,” she said. She also worked many summers as a naturalist and kept an eye out for clues from the past, such as “a remnant native plant community that is next to or in an urban environment that still has native plants” or ” a creek that might have been hidden, but sometimes it’s revealed and you can see, ‘Oh, wow, there were salmon runs here.'”

His research shows how people have changed the landscape of the Bay Area, using its resources and shaping the land in ways that hurt the animals that once thrived there. Through her work, she tried to help people imagine what this place looked like centuries ago. But not everyone understands why she does it.

Laura Cunningham’s paintings attempt to recreate what the natural environment might have looked like before European colonization of California. (Courtesy of Laura Cunningham, copyright 2022)

“I was at an art show 10 years ago in San Francisco, and I was showing these paintings of San Francisco and salmon and elk and grizzly bears,” she said. “And a man came up to me and he was very embarrassed about it. And he said, ‘What, you want to destroy our cities and our civilization and go back to that? “”

No, she said, of course not. But she wants others to know about this aspect of our region’s history. That is why she is now turning her book, which is out of print, into an online course.

Land stewardship and attitudes shape habitat

Increasingly, California land managers recognize that some long-established policies have been harmful. And they are more willing to learn land management practices from the natives who lived here before European settlement.

Peter Nelson, a professor of ethnic studies and environmental science at UC Berkeley, says the Coast Miwok, Pomo, Ohlone and other tribes of this region have managed the land and tended the animals for generations. Their lifestyles and land management practices have actually improved wildlife habitat. They used fire to keep tall plants like trees and shrubs from overtaking the native grasslands. This preserved habitat and food sources for rodents and rabbits, birds and insects, and even larger animals, such as elk. Fire also kills pests that damage oak trees, helping to maintain acorns as a food source for people and animals.

Oil painting of green hills, scrub vegetation and a deep blue bay beyond.
Artist and ecological historian Laura Cunningham imagines what Nob Hill would have looked like in San Francisco before the metropolis existed. (Courtesy of Laura Cunningham, copyright 2022)

For a century, the U.S. government disdained native burning practices, but last year California enacted a law that allows Native Americans to claim their place as “burning chiefs.” The Forest Service is also reassessing the role of prescribed burning and how Indigenous knowledge can inform change.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans arrived in ever-increasing numbers. They brought a very different philosophy that had devastating consequences for many people and animals.

Nelson points to old diaries written by Father José Altimira, a Spanish missionary who founded Mission Solano and explored Napa and Sonoma counties. Entry after entry, the priest lists the bears his group has killed.

“That afternoon and the following night, nothing more happened except our men killing a female bear with four cubs, which were discovered very close to us,” Altimira writes. And, “This afternoon the men of our company put to death many bears, animals offensive to humanity.”

Prior to European contact, scientists estimate there were around 10,000 grizzly bears in the state. They coexisted peacefully with the approximately 40,000 native people living between Napa County and Monterey.

“You see this narrative of Europeans imposing their views and values ​​on the landscape,” Nelson said.

European missionaries, traders and settlers also devastated the animals through excessive hunting, fishing and trapping. Sea otters and fur seals were besieged for their warm, precious pelts.

The beaver population was so devastated during the early European colonial period that early 20th century naturalists assumed they had never lived in the Bay Area. But a recent review of scientific records revealed evidence to suggest the beavers were here. Sea otters have nearly disappeared from the entire west coast due to the fur trade. They remain endangered to this day, and none currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

By the mid-19th century, European farmers had begun carving up the once open landscape with fences to protect their livestock from predators. This limited the distance that animals like wolves, bears and jaguars traveled in search of food, water and safe places to raise their young.

A parched view with brown grasses stretching into the distance is interrupted by a green bar in place of a lake.
Amidst an arid landscape, the remnants of Lake Tolay remain verdant. An early European colonizer drained the lake and planted crops on the fertile soil in the 1800s. (Amy Mayer/KQED)

Tolay Lake, the namesake of Lake Tolay Regional Park, is anything but dry. An early European colonizer drained it to cultivate the land. Today, a partnership between Sonoma County and the Graton Rancheria Federated Indiansalong with other state, federal and local partners, will prevent the development of this small area.

As an archaeologist, anthropologist, and member of the Graton Rancheria Federated Indians, Nelson looks to the lake bed – green and wet even on a hot summer day – and knows that this land has more stories to tell about how cared for by his ancestors and others. , and the impact of their actions on other creatures.

Nelson knows we’ll never return to a time when grizzly bears or jaguars roamed the area, but he hopes we can continue to preserve species that are still here, like the golden eagle. Over time, we may discover more about how people lived alongside predators and other megafauna.


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