Here be spirit bears

As if there weren’t already enough reasons to visit Canada’s breathtaking west coast, did you know that the region boasts the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforest, the legendary home of the Spirit Bear.

British Columbia’s entire coastline is lined by old-growth rainforest, but in roughly the middle of the province, a special stretch some 400km long is particularly precious, carved out by provincial protection and named after its most famed and mythicised inhabitant. The Great Bear Rainforest is a place unlike anywhere else in the world. Here you’ll find trees thousands of years old, orcas, bald eagles, salmon spawning, totem poles, plus grizzly and black bears.

But it’s the Spirit Bear most people who head to the Great Bear Rainforest are in search of, the patch designated by the Forest focused around the chain of small passage islands whose isolated nature has allowed the white bears to persist.

Christina Service is a Ph.D Scholar at the Hakai-Raincoast laboratory, a joint project between the University of Victoria and the Tula Foundation, who’s done a lot of work with the regions’ various bear species over the years.

‘The Spirit Bear is not an albino, their paws, eyes, and snouts still normally pigmented,’ says Service. ‘They’re actually a subspecies of black bear that only exists in the central coast islands of British Columbia.’

Their white coat is the result of a rare recessive gene, both parents must carry at least one copy of the gene for a Spirit Bear to be born. About ten percent of the island’s black bear populations have entirely white coats—until of course they get dirty.

Though they go by many names, these rare bears are best known to the area’s First Nations peoples as the Spirt Bear, revered in legend and myth. But just what makes these bears worthy of such a weighty title? Plenty, it turns out.

A reminder of a time before humans

Doug Neasloss of the Kitasoo-Xai Xais First Nation, Chief Councillor and Resource Stewardship Director of the Kitasoo Band Council, explains that in their culture the Spirit Bear was the result of the deal struck between the black bear and the Creator, the Raven.

‘After Raven had finished making the green world he wanted something to remind him of the time when things were all white, during the ice age,’ says Neasloss. ‘So Raven talked to black bear and promised him he would be forever safe and live peacefully if he let one in every ten of his population be white.’

Called moksgm’ol, or the spirit of the rainforest, for a long time early settlers in the province didn’t believe the legend, despite the fact the occasional white pelt made a ruckus at trading posts. Though most chalked the unexpected pelts up to a seriously astray polar bear, or fraud, the mysterious white furs got the attention of a New York Zoological Society naturalist, W.T. Hornaday, who became convinced the specimens were evidence of a new species. In 1905 after years of exploration in the region Hornaday dubbed the species Kermode bears, after the director of the B.C. Museum of Natural History who helped Hornaday conduct his work in the region.

We’ve learned a lot since Hornaday’s time, now categorising the bears as a subspecies of black bear, Ursus americanus kermodei, but the majestic animals really only gained public attention back in the 1990s, when logging operations threatened their exclusive string of coastal islands and accompanying watersheds.

‘We call this period the war of the woods,’ says Neasloss. ‘My community fought tirelessly alongside companies, conservation groups, and government officials to set aside a large chunk of land, as big as we could negotiate, which in the province’s first deal in 2006 was about 48% of the territory we wanted.’

This act protected 10 separate Spirit Bear sites totalling some 212.415 hectares. Neasloss says in some ways this was a risky move, agreeing to cut logging out of the community’s economic plans for good. But in other ways there was a general consensus that nothing was more important than protecting the land and the life it supported. The same groups who had fought to establish 2006’s victory continued their work, some point in the early 2000s naming the stretch the Great Bear Forest, and the new title stuck.

Tim McGrady of the Spirit Bear Lodge says visitors are always shocked to find out back then the forest was simply known as the Mid-coast Timber Supply Forest. ‘Renaming the land was an attempt to rebrand it, to bring awareness to just what we had here in our own backyard,’ he says.

Though the forest isn’t entirely secured by provincial protection just yet, efforts to reach this ultimate goal haven’t died down. Just a few weeks back, the province announced it would make logging activities illegal in 85 per cent of the Great Bear Forest. This is great news for all involved, but habitat loss isn’t the only threat the Spirit Bear faces. Hunters and invading grizzly bears are putting pressure on the estimated 400 remaining rare bears.

The intimidating new kid on the block


While it’s tempting to imagine black bears and grizzlies foraging for berries side by side or wading alongside one another in salmon infested waters for an afternoon snack, the truth is, these species just don’t mix. Grizzly bears are massive compared to black bears and solitary by nature, establishing big stretches of prime hunting territory and then defending it rather viciously.

Neasloss has spend a lot of time in the Great Bear Forest, having worked as a tour guide for more than 15 years. He says around a decade ago he began noticing grizzly bears in Spirit Bear territory, but when he approached authorities about the matter was disregarded for not being an academic. With the help of his community Neasloss founded the Spirt Bear Research Foundation to look into the issue. Service and Chris Darimont, also with the Rainforest Conservation Foundation, agreed to aid in the research. In 2014 their work was published, showing Neasloss had been right all along.

‘Our first work explored how grizzly bears are expanding their range, into places that have up until now been holdouts for Spirit Bears and black bears,’ says Service. ‘Using remote camera traps, hair snares, the knowledge of elders and locals, and genetic analysis we found enough evidence to say grizzlies are setting up shop on these islands. We found mothers and cub—these bears are not just moving through.’

What does that mean for Spirit Bears? The jury’s still out. But that’s one of the big questions the team, still working together, is currently investigating. Service says one way to see how the bears are doing is to map their yearly diets, specifically how much salmon the animals are getting. Fish intake is a standardly used metric of bear health.

‘Generally it holds that the more fish a bear eats, the healthier it’s likely to be and more likely it is to have offspring and survive,’ says Service.

If Spirt Bears and black bears are getting less fish, it could be because grizzlies have moved into their turf or claimed the prime fishing spots. Neasloss says he’s seen cases where river systems were once entirely covered with black and Spirt Bears, so dense in the best habitats you couldn’t walk five minutes without spotting some of the beloved animals.

‘But when a grizzly shows up, pretty much everyone scatters,’ says Neasloss. ‘The powerful grizzly will mark its new claim, warning others to stay away, just incase other bears missed the message.’

In light of this, another question the team is pursuing in order to ensure the survival of the Spirt Bear is a bit counterintuitive. Service says now that they’ve hashed out that grizzlies are for sure invading Spirt Bear territory, the next step is allocating habitation protection for the newcomers.

Protecting the threat and tacking others

Under provincial law, grizzly bears are deemed a special species by the Federal Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and listed as S3, or Vulnerable in 2012 by the Conservation Data Centre. That means the government must protect 100 percent of the species class I (best quality) habitat, and 50 per cent of their class II habitats.

So when the team confirmed that grizzlies have extended their range, they also found new habitats that need to be taken into consideration to meet the conditions of the species’ status.

‘Right now we need to determine which habitats are most important for all bears and then see if we’re designating the right places,’ says Service. Sorting all this out will also mean taking into consideration upstream influences, which has a big impact on food availability in downstream bear habitats.‘We can only protect so much. There will always be some losses to industries, like the timber businesses, that’s why knowing this information is so important.’

Though it’s unclear if grizzlies are causing problems for Spirt and black bears, there’s a very clear need to enforce the protection of both. Neasloss explains that the province still issues hunting licenses, allowing visitors to trophy hunt the region’s grizzly and black bears, and residents to hunt for food, which doesn’t make any sense for a number of reasons. He says when their team went to look at the government’s science, how they got the grizzly population estimates they use to regulate and justify hunting allotments, he asked an official how much groundwork this calculation had required.

‘The answer was very little, they use the bear density of a few habitats and extrapolate it out to the whole forest using computer models,’ says Neasloss. ‘No one’s ever gone through and actually tried to figure out exactly how many bears we have, and where they are.’

Currently the province’s grizzly population is cited as being 15,000 strong, down from a historical 35,0000, spread across 56 groupings with 9 being classified as threatened. But many don’t think these are valid numbers and are calling for a ban on the practice, claiming the population may be only 6,000 in total. And between 300 and 400 grizzly bears are shot by trophy hunters yearly in the province.

‘This isn’t something that is acceptable from a cultural, biological, or economic standpoint,’ says Neasloss.

Though less is known about the numbers, the black bear stats are probably a lot worse. In accordance with a Freedom of Information Act requested last year, in 2013-14 British Columbia issued 1,699 resident grizzly hunting licenses, and 21,836 black bear hunting licenses. Spirt Bear hunting is forbidden, but it’s impossible to tell if a bear is a carrier of the crucial recessive gene by their appearance.

Keeping our part of the Raven’s deal

Ensuring that the Spirt bear lives on is more than just the right thing to do; economically it’s the smart thing to do.

What began as a three-man operation run by Neasloss and founders to counter lost logging revenue is the early 2000s, offering wildlife tours to visitors arriving on the weekly provincial ferry, is today a major source of employment for the First Nations village of Klemtu. It’s taken a lot of persistence and funds, even after the Lodge was built in 2006, and then added onto in 2011, but finally business is booming. Neasloss says the Lodge employs at least one member of every family in his community of 420.

McGrady applauds the foresight of their founders. ‘They saw a decline in other resource sectors, and saw tourism as a viable, sustainable, non-consumptive option. We’re really just beginning to reap all the benefits of their good decisions and hard work.’

If you’re up for an epic trip, the Spirt Bear Lodge offers visitors from all over the world all-inclusive packages out of Vancouver International Airport. Visitors fly into the community of Bella Bella, then travel by water taxi north to the Lodge, smack dab in the middle of the Kitasso Spirt Bear Conservancy on Swindle Island. Visitors stay between three and six nights, spending their days out in the forest on guided wildlife walks, primarily in search of all three types of bears. While at the Lodge travellers also indulge in the local cuisine and witness cultural performances, something that makes the trip that much more memorable according to McGrady.

‘Really you can consider the Lodge as a top-notch wildlife viewing facility in the context of a First Nations village,’ he says. He adds they’re continuously training community members to be tour guides, a role the village’s youth are especially passionate about. Guides weave in stories about their people’s history and beliefs during tours, allowing visitors a glimpse of nature through the context of their culture.

‘People can go many places to see bears, but only here can they see the spirit bears alongside all the region’s other amazing animals,’ says McGrady, ‘and we frame this experience through the lens of another culture, one ancient and focused around nature, with different ideas about space and time.’

Neasloss and Service both say the Spirt Bear faces a lot of uncertainties. Climate change is very likely to pose new challenges for the bears, on top of the human mismanagement problems and potential territory losses already in play. Service adds that industrial pressures are mounting too, especially as pipelines move into the surrounding area meaning oil loads must be transported through the Great Bear Forest. ‘One oil spill would be enough to impact the entire marine environment, possibly crippling the bears’ food supply,’ she says.

But thanks to the tireless efforts of those who know and love the rare white bears, and the support of the general public whenever there’s a really juicy news story or big campaign launched, for now at least the Spirt Bear is hear to stay.

Yet keeping our part of the Raven’s deal and ensuring the safe keeping of the rare bare indefinitely will probably require a lot more work down the road. To find out what you can do to help make sure the Spirt Bear sticks around to delight future generations check out some of the many groups dedicated to the bear’s endurance, like the Rainforest Solutions Project or Coast Forest Conservation Initiative. The Spirit Bear Research Foundation even lets you adopt a bear cam—and yes, they share the footage.


[geoip-content not_country=”CA”] Interested in learning more about Spirit Bears? SEARCH FOR THE GHOST BEARS is now streaming on our app. [/geoip-content]