Laura Cunningham's painting tries to recreate what the Bay Area would have looked like before European colonization and land management tactics altered the ecosystem forever. (Courtesy Laura Cunningham, copyright 2022)
Many animals that once roamed the Bay Area are gone, but wolves, grizzly bears, antelope and even jaguars once lived here. Over the past several centuries, humans have altered the landscape and influenced the environment in some big ways. Bay Curious listener Isabel Guajardo wondered what kinds of animals flourished in and around San Francisco Bay before Europeans arrived. Some are the same ones we see today — ducks, geese, salmon — but many of the biggest animals from that era are long gone.
Imagining California wildlife before the Spanish
Artist Laura Cunningham spent decades researching California’s ecological history and says 300 years ago, there would have been “vast abundant herds and flocks, and the fisheries just would have been astounding.”
Cunningham is the author of “A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California,” a book that includes many of her paintings. She says there used to be pronghorn antelope, along with tule elk and grizzly bears. Such big predators are hard to imagine in our modern urban environment.
“There were very large grizzlies, and they were abundant. Wolf packs. There were apparently even jaguars inhabiting the coastal live oak woodlands as far north as San Francisco,” she said.
Cunningham dug through old photographs and maps, consulted oil paintings by European colonists and sought 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 her eye out for clues to the past, such as “a remnant native plant community that’s next to, or in, an urban environment that still has native plants,” or “a creek that might have been covered up, but sometimes it’s revealed and you can see, ‘Oh, wow, there used to be salmon runs here.'”
Her research shows just how much 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 here. Through her work, she’s tried to help people imagine what this place looked like centuries ago. But not everyone understands why she does it.
“I was at an art show 10 years ago in San Francisco, and showing these paintings of San Francisco and salmon and elk and grizzlies,” she said. “And a man came up to me and he was very bothered by this. And he said, ‘What, you want to destroy our cities and civilization and go back to this?'”
No, she said, of course not. But she wants others to know this aspect of our region’s history. That’s why she’s now turning her book, which is out of print, into an online curriculum.
Land stewardship and attitudes shape habitat
Increasingly, California land managers are recognizing that some long-established policies have been harmful. And they’re more open to learning land management practices from the native people who lived here before European colonization.
Peter Nelson, a UC Berkeley professor of ethnic studies and environmental science, says the Coast Miwok, Pomo, Ohlone and other tribes of this region managed land and cared for animals for generations. Their lifestyles and land management practices actually improved the habitat for wildlife. They used fire to keep larger plants like trees and shrubs from overtaking the native grasslands. That preserved habitat and food sources for rodents and rabbits, birds and insects, and even bigger animals, like elk. Fire also kills pests that damage oak trees, helping to maintain acorns as a food supply for people and animals alike.
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 “burn bosses.” The Forest Service is also reevaluating the role of prescribed burning and how Indigenous knowledge can inform changes.
Nelson points to old journals written by Father José Altimira, a Spanish missionary who founded the Solano Mission and explored Napa and Sonoma counties. In entry after entry, the priest tabulates the bears his party killed.
“This afternoon and following night nothing more occurred, if we except our men killing a she-bear with four cubs, who were discovered very close to us,” Altimira wrote. And, “This afternoon the men of our company put to death many bears, animals offensive to humanity.”
Before European contact, scientists estimate there were around 10,000 grizzly bears in the state. They peacefully coexisted with the estimated 40,000 native people living between Napa County and Monterey.
“You see that narrative of Europeans imposing their views and values on the landscape,” Nelson said.
European missionaries, traders and settlers also devastated animals through excessive hunting, fishing and trapping. Sea otters and fur seals were under siege for their warm and valuable pelts.
The beaver population was so devastated during the early period of European colonialism that early 20th-century naturalists assumed they’d never lived in the Bay Area. But a recent review of scientific records teased out evidence suggesting beavers were here. Sea otters nearly disappeared from the entire West Coast because of the fur trade. They remain endangered to this day, and none currently live in San Francisco Bay.
By the mid-19th century, European farmers had begun carving up the once open landscape with fences to protect their livestock from predators. That limited how far animals like wolves, bears and jaguars could range looking for food, water and safe places to raise their young.
Tolay Lake, the namesake of Tolay Lake Regional Park, is all but dry. An early European colonizer drained it to farm the land. Now, a partnership between Sonoma County and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, along with other state, federal and local partners, will keep this small area from being further developed.
As an archaeologist, anthropologist and member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Nelson looks at the lake bed — green and moist even on a hot summer day — and knows this land has more stories to tell about how his ancestors and others cared for it, and the impact their actions had on other creatures.
Nelson knows we’ll never go back to a time when grizzlies or jaguars roamed the area, but he’s hopeful we can continue to preserve the species that are still here, like the golden eagle. Over time, we may uncover more about how people lived alongside predators and other megafauna.
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