The Great Bear Rainforest: Home of the Elusive Spirit Bear

2021-11-16

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

What is a Spirit Bear? 

This article will explore a subspecies of black bears called Kermode bears (named after Francis Kermode, the director of the British Columbia Provincial Museum, now the Royal British Columbia Museum, in the early 1900s). These bears are also referred to as “spirit bears” or “ghost bears” due to a recessive gene mutation which causes their white fur. Population geneticist Kermit Ritland discovered that this coat colour in Kermode bears, “[…] involves the same gene that produces the blonde coat of golden retrievers.” 

Kermode bears only live in British Columbia, primarily in the coastal rainforests of Princess Royal Island and Gribbell Island.  Kermode bears are omnivores and they focus on different food sources at different times of the year. For example, in the Spring, Kermode bears often eat low-elevation vegetation such as skunk cabbage and sedge. However, in Autumn, salmon become a staple of the Kermode bears’ diets as Pacific salmon return to their place of birth to spawn.

Cultural and Economic Importance

Kermode bears are integral to many ecosystems in more rural regions of both Princess Royal Island and Gribbell Island. However, these bears also contribute greatly to the economic conservation of the community of Klemtu, which relies heavily on tourist wildlife-viewing through Spirit Bear Lodge. This lodge employs almost 10 percent of the population, and offers a diverse range of employment opportunities (particularly for youth). 

In addition to providing economic support, Kermode bears are also a culturally important organism. They serve an important role in narratives, symbolism, and ceremonies of the Indigenous communities in Klemtu. This subspecies in particular is tied to a story of the Raven (Wee’get) deciding to turn every tenth black bear white “[…] on what is now Princess Royal Island, where they would be protected, to remind Raven forever of when the world was cold.” 

Socially, spirit bears have also been represented in different capacities by the mainstream media. In 2006, British Columbia announced that spirit bears would be the official provincial animal. Then, in 2010, one of the mascots for the Winter Olympics hosted in Vancouver was named Miga. This creature is called a sea bear, a mythical animal that is part killer whale and part Kermode bear. 

What places Kermode bears at risk?

One of the largest risks for Kermode bears in the Central and North Coast regions of British Columbia is clearcut logging, particularly on the north end of Princess Royal Island. When industrial logging first arrived on the central coast of British Columbia in the 1980s, areas that were heavily populated with Kermode bears were protected. These advancements in forest protection have resulted in approximately 32 percent of the BC mid- and north-coast being sheltered. Unfortunately, this still leaves a large portion of Kermode bear habitats unprotected. 

The makers of the documentary titled ‘The Great Bear Rainforest’, recently highlighted the bear mapping and hair sampling being conducted by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais people in the communities of Klemtu and Hartley Bay. By collecting data from 2012 to 2017, these researchers found that: “only half of all spirit bear hotspots were safeguarded.” Adding to this problem, in ​​2013, some major loggers (such as TimberWest Corp.) attempted to legally clear cut some of the last old-growth stands on the island

Home-improvements have also soared since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This high demand for wood and other construction supplies has resulted in shortages of pressure treated wood and cedar wood generally. While Canadian retailers have welcomed higher demand and subsequent profit, further human encroachment into the north coast of British Columbia (through excessive clearcut logging and mining operations) further endangers Kermode bears. 

Additionally, biologists have learned that Kermode bears may be uniquely vulnerable to oil spills due to their location. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Project has proposed a route that crosses over 700 rivers and streams in First Nations communities, and intersects with the Great Bear Rainforest (6.4 million hectares on British Columbia’s north and central coast) where these bears are concentrated. Consequently, this project poses a great risk to these bears. Furthermore, accidents, such as ships hitting rocks and sinking, can cause widespread pollution, which in turn could affect the Kermode bears’ access to food and safe habitats. 

How can I help? 

There are many local organizations dedicated to conserving the Kermode bear subspecies. For example, The Spirit Bear Foundation is primarily focused on researching Kermode bears and the salmon and human communities that are also part of their ecosystem. Ultimately, the mission of this organization is to advance scientific knowledge of “[…] grizzly, black, and Kermode bear populations, and the ecosystem that supports these populations.” This organization accepts donations at this link: Donate – Spirit Bear (spiritbearfoundation.com). Donors, above a certain amount, gain access to the video footage of a sponsored research camera, focused on these bears. 

There are also a number of digital petitions and letter-writing campaigns dedicated to preventing clearcut logging. This Eco Campaign was founded by the West Kootenay EcoSociety to “[…] regulate logging on private land, and to require land owners to publicise clear plans for logging in advance.” The Valhalla Wilderness Society has drafted proposals to prevent clearcut logging of BC rainforests, including the Selkirk Mountain Caribou Park Proposal and the Rainbow-Jordan Wilderness Proposal. More information about these efforts, as well as petitions and letter-writing campaigns, can be found here: Take Action – Valhalla Wilderness Society (vws.org)

In dialogue with First Nations communities and the government, The Valhalla Wilderness Society hopes to implement forest management systems with a greater focus on sustaining ecological integrity in high-traffic logging areas. For readers who may seek to make an individual impact from home, the National Resources Defence Council has created a guide for consumers to identify and purchase sustainably and ethically sourced wood. Shoppers applying pressure on large corporations will encourage more sustainable business practices, and discourage destructive logging. This, overall, will have a net positive impact on Kermode bears and other wild/plant life inhabiting the coastal rainforests of British Columbia.