Stories of the Spirit Bear
The deepening mystery of British Columbia’s white bears
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.
Great Bear Rainforest
Fjord and cedar forest