Sto­ries of the Spirit Bear

The deep­en­ing mys­tery of Bri­tish Columbia’s white bears

Seabourn Club Herald - - FEATURES - BY GARRY MESSICK

Lis­ten. In the be­gin­ning, many thou­sands of years ago, the Earth was cov­ered in vast, crys­tal-white glaciers. Then Raven, the cre­ator, flew down from the heav­ens and turned the white to green — the green of forests and mead­ows, grass­lands and veg­e­ta­tion. The first man and woman sprang from seeds, and they were born into this lush and boun­ti­ful world. But even­tu­ally Raven found him­self feel­ing wist­ful for the way things orig­i­nally were. He wanted to some­how com­mem­o­rate the be­gin­ning, the Long White Time that had ruled be­fore his ar­rival. It didn’t take him long to de­cide that Black Bear, the keeper of dreams and mem­o­ries, was ideal for the job. Black Bear, be­ing one of the many con­stel­la­tions that bright­ened the night sky, was easy to find. Raven flew to him and pro­posed a deal. The cre­ator guar­an­teed that Black Bear would live in peace, safe from harm for all time, if, in re­turn, Black Bear agreed to al­low one in 10 of ev­ery black bear that was born to turn white. These white bears would be a re­minder of the ini­tial, icy state of the world.

So goes the cre­ation story of the

Ki­ta­soo and Xai’xais, indige­nous peo­ples who merged in the late 1800s and founded Klemtu in Bri­tish Columbia, Canada, and who to­day con­sti­tute a

First Na­tions band gov­ern­ment. But the crea­ture at the heart of their myth, the Moksgm’o, as they call it — the spirit orghost bear — is a very real, if rare, denizen of the re­gion’s Great Bear Rain­for­est, one of the world’s largest coastal tem­per­ate rain­forests.

Dense with trees, in­clud­ing some western red cedars that are more than 1,000 years old, it’s a strange re­gion of al­most oth­er­worldly beauty, where lonely is­lands seem to hover in the thick mist that also threads through deep fjords, and where hilly mead­ows and sparkling streams are watched over by glacier­topped moun­tains. The rain­for­est en­com­passes 25,000 square miles and stretches 250 miles down the western coast of Canada. The spirit bears are mainly con­cen­trated on Princess

Royal Is­land and, di­rectly to the north, Gribbell Is­land, where the ra­tio of white to black bears is one in three.

Es­ti­mated by ex­perts to num­ber as few as 100 over­all, and revered above all other an­i­mals by the First Na­tion lo­cals, the spirit bear is one of the rarest bears on

Dense with trees, in­clud­ing some western red cedars that are more than 1,000 years old, it’s a strange re­gion of al­most oth­er­worldly beauty.

Earth. They are part of a sub­species of black bear called the Ker­mode bear, which was named for Fran­cis Ker­mode in 1905. Ker­mode, who later be­came the di­rec­tor of Vic­to­ria’s Royal Bri­tish Columbia Mu­seum, was in­stru­men­tal in re­search­ing and as­sist­ing zo­ol­o­gists in track­ing down the bears. Spirit bears are the one-tenth of Ker­mode bears that are born white or cream-col­ored due to a ge­netic mu­ta­tion. The pale bears are not al­bi­nos, be­cause the gene re­spon­si­ble for the lack of pig­men­ta­tion in their coats is not one of the four genes that lead to al­binism. Be­cause it’s a re­ces­sive trait, the mu­tated gene must be car­ried by both mama and papa bear in or­der for their prog­eny to be white.

Given their im­por­tant mytho­log­i­cal sta­tus, it makes sense to the Ki­ta­soo that spirit bears ap­pear to have spe­cial abil­i­ties. Science backs up this im­pres­sion; it was re­cently dis­cov­ered that they are bet­ter than black bears at catch­ing fish in streams, for one thing. Sci­en­tists think the pale, foam-col­ored spirit bears may be

more dif­fi­cult for fish to see, mak­ing salmon and other prey eas­ier for them to snag. (As part of their study, re­searchers ac­tu­ally put on ei­ther black or white cov­er­alls, waded into the wa­ter and noted which color seemed more likely to star­tle salmon.) The fact that black and white bears have much more equal suc­cess rates when fish­ing at night seems to back up the the­ory.

Per­haps as a sign of their rev­er­ence for spirit bears, lo­cal First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties have been gen­er­ally closed­mouthed about the crea­tures. Doug Neasloss of the Ki­ta­soo/Xai’xais says he didn’t think they even ex­isted “be­cause my com­mu­nity never talked about them.” He now re­al­izes that “part of it was to re­ally con­ceal the fact that they ex­isted, oth­er­wise peo­ple would go out and hunt them.”

Sci­en­tists are con­cerned that, be­fore long, the spirit bear will in­deed cease to ex­ist, due to the in­creas­ing pres­ence of griz­zly bears on Princess Royal and

Sci­en­tists think the pale, foam-col­ored spirit bears may be more dif­fi­cult for fish to see.

Gribbell is­lands. Neasloss was among the first to sound the alarm.

Neasloss first spot­ted a spirit bear when he was in his 20s while out in the for­est. Cap­ti­vated by the sight of a crea­ture he had pre­vi­ously thought to be myth­i­cal, the young man felt com­pelled to seek out more of them. And find them he did, as he spent more and more of his time go­ing out and com­muning with na­ture, ap­pre­ci­at­ing the amaz­ing, near-mag­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. But even­tu­ally he re­al­ized spirit bears were grad­u­ally get­ting more dif­fi­cult to come by, while at the same time griz­zly bears seemed to be­come a more com­mon sight.

Neasloss es­ti­mates it was about

10 years ago that he started to see

“more and more griz­zlies ev­ery year.” He says, “We started see­ing mothers with cubs on the is­lands. We started see­ing big male griz­zly bears hang­ing out in cer­tain sys­tems.”

Pre­vi­ously, griz­zlies were known to be more com­mon north of the is­lands in­hab­ited by spirit bears. Neasloss be­gan to won­der what all of it meant.

“When you get a griz­zly bear that moves onto the is­land,” Neasloss says,

“it re­ally changes the whole land­scape of the sys­tem you’re in.”

Neasloss had a hard time get­ting any­one to take his ob­ser­va­tions se­ri­ously, so, with fund­ing raised in his com­mu­nity, he de­cided to take ac­tion on his own by found­ing the Spirit Bear Re­search Foun­da­tion. At the same time, he fi­nally found aca­demic al­lies in Christina Ser­vice and Chris Da­ri­mont from the Uni­ver­sity of Vic­to­ria and the Rain­coast Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion. The two found what Neasloss said com­pelling, so Ser­vice mounted 36 cam­eras through­out the for­est in or­der to ob­serve what, if any­thing, was go­ing on be­tween the two species of bears. It turned out that the griz­zlies — which are much larger than Ker­mode bears, spirit or oth­er­wise — were es­sen­tially bul­ly­ing the smaller bears, forc­ing them away from the best fish­ing ter­ri­tory.

“When they move into a sys­tem, (griz­zlies) are ba­si­cally king on these salmon rivers,” says Ser­vice.

In ad­di­tion to what they were see­ing on their sur­veil­lance cam­eras, Ser­vice and Da­ri­mont spoke with lo­cal mem­bers of the Ki­ta­soo/Xai’xais First Na­tion and col­lected their ob­ser­va­tions. The re­searchers even­tu­ally con­cluded that the griz­zlies had be­gun their in­va­sion around 2001, prob­a­bly be­cause salmon was be­com­ing scarce in the north­ern ar­eas that the huge bears nor­mally in­habit, forc­ing them to go far­ther afield in or­der to sus­tain them­selves.

At this point, the fu­ture of the spirit bear seems uncertain. It’s pos­si­ble they could co-ex­ist suc­cess­fully with the griz­zlies, but the new neigh­bors could also end up push­ing these rare crea­tures to the edge of ex­tinc­tion.

It’s hard to be­lieve that a sa­cred sym­bol like the spirit bear could van­ish from the Earth – although it may be a close call.

Ursa Ma­jor

Great Bear Rain­for­est

Fjord and cedar for­est

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