What is the spirit bear?
Spirit bear is one of the common names for a unique subspecies of the North American black bear. In spirit bear populations, approximately one in every 10 bears is snow-white or cream-coloured; the rest are black. The scientific name of the spirit bear is Ursus americanus kermodei.

White spirit bears are not albinos. The white colour phase may be due to the inheritance of a single gene for hair colour, but other more complex genetic mechanisms may be involved. Scientists are still studying this. Two black spirit bears with the right genes can mate and produce white individuals. It is also possible that two white spirit bears could mate and have black cubs.


Where do spirit bears live?
The spirit bear inhabits only one place on Earth: the central and north coast of British Columbia, Canada from about Rivers Inlet to Stewart.

Within this broad range of their occurrence, two genetic centres are recognized where white-phased individuals are more common, the Terrace-Nass-Hazelton area and the area centred on Princess Royal-Roderick & Pooley and Gribbell islands.

The areas around Terrace. B.C. have been heavily logged but bears there and their habitat are still in need of some protection.

The new 2006 spirit bear conservancy complex in the Princess Royal Island area will help protect the best intact areas on the B.C. coast. However, unless logging guidelines are significantly improved, most of the spirit bears' range outside of protected areas remains threatened by industrial forestry and other developments.


Even though some are white, is the spirit bear a type of black bear?

Black Kermode Bear
A black spirit bear.
There are both black
and white spirit bears.

Yes. The North American black bear is found only on this continent in association with forested landscapes. Scientists have identified 11 different subspecies of black bear, including the Kermode or spirit bear, in which about 1 bear in 10 is white or cream coloured. It is the unusually high occurrence of white bears in the population that makes the spirit bear unique, as white bears do occur very rarely in other populations of black bears in North America.


How did the spirit bears evolve?
Genetic studies show that the coastal black bears of British Columbia have been isolated from the rest of the black bears in North America for over 350,000 years. Some scientists speculate that spirit bears evolved on the rainforest islands of the Pacific coast of British Columbia in more recent times, i.e. since the glaciers from the last Ice Age melted about 10,000 years ago. Some of the large islands, such as Princess Royal Island, have about 10% white bears, while Gribbell Island may have up 30-50% white bears.

Tsimshian legend has it that Raven, the Creator, went about the black bears of Princess Royal Island and created every tenth bear white, as a reminder of the time when the land was covered with ice and snow.

It is interesting to note that west of the spirit bear area, the Haida Gwaii archipelago (Queen Charlotte Islands) hosts another subspecies in which all the bears are black. The Queen Charlotte bear is another subspecies of the black bear species.


What did conservationists do to save habitat for the spirit bear?
Starting 18 years ago, biologists with the Valhalla Wilderness Society became concerned about protecting the habitat of the spirit bear. After undertaking reconnaissance of the coastal areas where these bears live and consulting with the local First Nations people, VWS scientists developed a 262,000 hectare proposal for a large spirit bear conservancy. This encompassed the last large area of intact habitat of spirit bears, as much of their range on central coastal B.C. had already been laced with roads and clear-cuts.

The spirit bear conservancy area is about halfway between Vancouver and Prince Rupert. Stunning fjords, mountains, and valleys rich in salmon and bears comprise the mainland area. Vast expanses of intact rainforest and remote inlets and rugged coast comprise the areas. These include portions of Princess Royal and Pooley Islands and many mainland valleys. The area hosts more than 50 salmon streams, 800-1,100 Kermode (spirit bears), grizzly bears (mostly on the mainland) and an incredible wolf-deer predator-prey system with up to 16,000 Sitka deer.

Valhalla Society worked closely with the Gitga’at and Kitasoo First Nations who along with the province announced protection on February 7, 2006 of a complex of 10 spirit bear habitat conservancies totaling 212.415 hectares (522.540 acres).

The conservation-oriented VWS produced 11 different scientific reports on the spirit bear conservancy proposal, worked with film crews that developed over 20 documentaries on the spirit bear, ran two major ad campaigns, and helped First Nations develop spirit bear viewing programs.

We also had important input into new ecosystem-based management (EBM) guidelines that were supposed to “touch lightly on the land” where logging occurs in unprotected areas but these guidelines won’t be implemented until 2009 and may have become too weakened by the timber industry to be of any biological value.

In the end, the 2006 protection of the Spirit Bear Conservancy Complex occurred not only as a result of First Nations support but an international campaign resulting from publicity generated by the Valhalla Society and many other groups and individuals. The spirit bear became the international poster icon of the whole Great Bear Rainforest Campaign.


What is the new "Spirit Bear Protection Area"?

It is a complex of 10 new conservancies officially legislated by the province in April 2006 on Princess Royal Island, Pooley Island, Swindle Island, Price Island and adjacent mainland watersheds that in total comprise 212.415 hectares (522.540 acres). The largest of these conservancies is known as the “Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy” comprised of 102,875 ha of the Canoona River and the area of south Princess Royal Island including all of Laredo Inlet, a 30 km long fiord that runs up from the south end of the island.

The total area comprises roughly 80% of the original proposal by the Valhalla Society.


Why is a Protection Area necessary?
Conservation biologists tell us we need to protect at least 44-50% of the coastal rainforest of British Columbia if ecosystems for bears, salmon and other wildlife are to remain viable in perpetuity. Studies show that survival of wildlife populations that range over large areas, such as wolves and bears, require vaster areas of intact wilderness than was originally thought.

The Valhalla Wilderness Society's scientific study of spirit bears concluded that the 262,000-hectare area it proposed for protection would be the minimum size needed to save the spirit bear in the longterm. The 2006 protection was a major step forward but dialogue with First Nations needs to continue on adding important habitats such as Gribbell Island, Green and Carter Valleys and others to complete a viable sanctuary.

Partly why this is vital is that the new Spirit Bear Protected Complex is an important ecological linkage between coastal islands and a large already protected area to the east comprised of the Kitlope Conservancy, Tweedsmuir Park and Fjordland Conservancy. All told this 1.7-million-acre protected complex is the only place on the whole Pacific Coast of North America that forms an archipelago of protected areas stretching from Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve out in the Pacific eastward to through the coast range to B.C.’s interior grasslands. Filling in the missing gaps in the new Spirit Bear Protection Area will complete this.


Where is the new Spirit Bear Protection Area?

It is on the mainland coast of B.C. about 1/2 way between the city of Vancouver in the south and the city of Prince Rupert in the north.


Why is the spirit bear still threatened?
More than half of the coastal rainforest has been logged, with few or no guidelines to protect spirit bears or other rainforest-dependent species.This makes the new Spirit Bear Protection Area announced in 2006 vitally important, especially if other areas can eventually be added.

Bear Den
A bear den in an
ancient tree. Clear
cutting will remove
spirit bears' dens.

However, the new sanctuary complex is only a small part of a vast range of distribution where spirit bears occur — about half of the length of the entire B.C. coast from Rivers Inlet north to the Alaska border. The spirit bear is threatened because much of its home range has already been logged, and a good portion of the remainder is slated for the same fate. While logging creates some short-term benefits for bears (for example, berries, one of the bears’ foods, grow in clearcuts), the long-term consequences of industrial logging are very serious. For example, the loss of big trees that provide dens for winter hibernation means they will not have adequate protection a from the powerful storms that howl in from the Pacific Ocean.


The spirit bear lives in an area with high mountains and steep mountainsides that form deep valleys and fjords. The soil on these rocky slopes is thin, held in place only by the trees that blanket them. Following logging, the tree stumps erode. When heavy rains saturate the soil, these logged hillsides often collapse, sweeping the soil down into the valley bottoms where it chokes and silts salmon streams.

Roads are another problem. Roads cause further hillside erosion, and they provide access to the forest for hunters and poachers. Some bears (mothers with young) will avoid roads, therefore their habitat is fragmented. Other bears may use roads as travel corridors, making them easy targets for hunters and poachers.

Even with the new Spirit Bear Protection Area, there are still plans by Western Forest Products Ltd. to build about 500 kilometers of logging roads and create 300 clearcuts over the next 20 years in areas within the VWS’s spirit bear conservancy proposal that were not protected. Spirit bear habitats on Roderick-Pooley Islands are already undergoing extensive roading and clearcutting. Only a small area of Pooley Island is part of the new Spirit Bear Protection Area.

While the logging companies are talking about using gentler ecosystem-based logging methods, the reality is that an extensive network of roads will still be required to reach the remote forests to transport the trees.

Hollow Tree - Bear Den
Logging like this will degrade spirit bears' habitat.

The logging and road-building will mean that spirit bears (and grizzly bears) will lose den trees, critical food sources and cover for safety from poachers. Logging the steep, wet slopes will cause landslides and erosion. This will destroy salmon habitat and eventually clog up the estuaries, destroying the salmon that are one of the spirit bear’s food sources.

Although the government is planning on implementing new ecosystem-based management (EBM) guidelines for logging operations in 2009, after announcing the spirit bear conservancy complex in February 2006 they then turned around and gave the logging companies permits to export about 9,600  logging truck loads of raw logs from the central coast. This means the best trees, some of those valued by spirit bears for denning or other old-growth dependent wildlife, will be shipped out of clearcut areas creating an increasing ecological deficit of ancient forest and only a few badly needed jobs for First Nations.

Surrounded by such escalating destruction, the new Spirit Bear Protection Area could become an “island of extinction”.

That is why it is so important that we continue to work for full protection of the spirit bears’ habitat.

Valhalla Society encourages everyone to let the government know that new logging guidelines need to be strengthened to maintain old-growth dependent animals such as the spirit bear and marbled murrelet and that these guidelines need to be implemented now, not years later when it may be too late.


What about the rights of First Nations?

The new Spirit Bear Conservancy Areas are within the traditional territories and land-claim areas of four First Nations: the Kitasoo/Xais-xais, Gitga’at, Heilstuk, and Haisla/Hainaksula. Protection of the Spirit Bear Conservancy Complex never would have happened without the support of these first nations, especially the Gitga’at and Kitasoo/Xais-xais First Nations who have lived in the area for thousands of years. The Gitga’at live in the area at Hartley Bay and the Kitasoo live at Klemtu, on Swindle Island to the south. Some of their territories and land-claims areas overlap and are the subject of unresolved treaty negotiations with the B.C. provincial government and Canadian federal government.

In 2005 First Nations governments and the provincial government went into governrnent-to-government negotiations on land-use planning on the coast and finally agreed to a protocol for protection of land conservancies and improved logging through an ecosystem approach. The province and First Nations agreed to a system that recognizes First Nations rights and titles but the details have yet to be worked out.

Philanthropic foundations, the province and the federal government developed a $120 million conservation financing for First Nations community development that is linked to protection. This might include tourism facilities being developed in the communities with ecotours and bear-viewing in protected areas and other sites, as an example. The final amount will have to be split between 34 First Nations and is partly based on how much of the land base they agree to protect.


Will the creation of the Spirit Bear Protection Area benefit First Nations?

Yes, especially when linked to the Conservation financing package. as mentioned above. There is severe unemployment in many coastal First Nations communities. It is hoped that the new Spirit Bear Protection Complex will provide local people with the opportunity to benefit from ecotourism development within their communities, as tourists from all over the world come to see bears and the wild rainforests that shelter them. It is hoped that ecotourism will create sustainable, long-term jobs for First Nations people as rangers, hosts providing accommodations and related tourism services, managers of interpretive and cultural centres, and owners of restaurants and the many spin-off businesses that support tourism.


However, efforts must also be made to ensure tourism does not harm spirit bears, grizzly bears and other sensitive species. Recently there have been problems with large high-end lodges like King Pacific Lodge moving into pristine spirit bear areas and using helicopters for bear viewing and heli-fishing, causing disruptions to bears and the low-key ecotourism operations based from boats.


A protection area also means traditional foods for First Nations such as salmon and deer will be maintained along with aboriginal peoples' rights to use them. The benefits derived from harvesting marine resources such as wild salmon will also be sustained, because salmon spawning creeks will be protected.


What you can do
Go to our Action Centre.


A personal view from the spirit bear campaign co-ordinatorWayne McCrory
(A bear biologist describes his deep personal connection to the rare white spirit bear and why he has worked for the last 18 years to protect its home in B.C.'s temperate rainforest.)

By Wayne McCrory

It is some 18 years since I sat on the deck of the sailboat Ocean Light, and, in the soft moon glow of a misty rainforest evening, reflected on seeing my first spirit bear that day.

I knew then, as did my expedition companions, that a plan must be formulated for a spirit bear sanctuary. All of us – skipper and bear guide Tom Ellison, Bart Robinson (then editor of Equinox magazine) and my fellow bear biologist Erica Mallam – were enthralled with this rare bear and knew we must protect it.

For the past week, we had circumnavigated Princess Royal Island in the Ocean Light in search of a white Kermode or "spirit" bear. We were all bear aficionados – ursaphiles – chasing a dream. After seeing no white bears there after several seasons of research, we had again come looking. We had sloshed our way up many salmon creeks hidden in the deep, mossy forests. We had explored some of the remotest inlets and fjords on earth. We had watched and photographed many black Kermodes but it was that day, our last of the season, that we had finally seen a white bear, called the "ghost bear" or "spirit bear" in First Nations' lore.

That evening, revelling in the magic and richness of the experience, we took out our maps and with a pencil sketched some tentative ideas for a new protected area to become known simply as "spirit bear." Little did I know this seminal act would become a 18-year struggle to protect these magnificent creatures – Canada's rarest bear.

We had never seen such a rich and intact bear-salmon ecosystem. We were in Laredo Inlet, a fjord in the middle of Princess Royal Island, which had 13 salmon streams and expanses of intact rainforest reaching to every far ridgeline. I had never seen such forests; not even in the Khutzeymateen Valley where we had recently been working with a handful of conservation groups to establish Canada's first grizzly sanctuary.

From a hidden bay, a pack of wolves howled in a way that stirred wild feelings in my heart. "All is well now, but the clearcuts and roads are quickly coming – we have to save this," I told my companions. With some sadness, we packed away our maps, notebooks and cameras. The next day we sailed for home. Then the long work of campaigning for a new protected area began.

With my colleagues in the Valhalla Wilderness Society and a team of scientists, we put together a Spirit Bear Conservancy proposal that would have been large enough to protect Kermode bears. We worked for many years, consulting with First Nations, to construct a proposal that would protect more than 50 salmon streams, mainland grizzly valleys and 18 endangered estuary wetlands, large and small. What we wanted to save included perhaps the last valley bottoms with endangered Sitka spruce that can still be measured in square kilometres, not mere stands. Our proposal would have protected up to 1,000 Kermode bears (approximately 100 of them white), 80 grizzlies, 6 wolf packs and more than 16,000 Sitka deer.

As we saw it, the Spirit Bear Conservancy Proposal would have set aside a fully functioning predator-prey system where salmon support the bears, the deer support 7 or 8 packs of wolves, and salmon, deer and the rich sea life support the larders of First Nations – an intact ecosystem too complex for the best of science to comprehend all of its intricate cycles.

Frankly I never thought it would take so long to protect a spirit bear sanctuary. In 2001 the province and First Nations signed a protocol for a sanctuary but the province just dragged the issue on far too long. We waited another five years until February 2006 for the protection to finally be announced and this was good since it was about 80%  of our original proposal. This is a globally significant step and we are most grateful to not only the province but especially to the hard work of the Kitasoo/Xais-xais and Gitga’at First Nations.

Now we must ensure that the areas that were not designated as protected will be added to the bears’ secure habitat. To make it everlasting, we must protect key ecological areas such as the Green Inlet-Carter Watersheds, Gribbell Island and others. As well, we need to work harder to see really biologically sound logging in the unprotected areas.

To save them is still my fondest dream – I cannot shake the feeling that we owe it to these rarest of bears to ensure their survival.

(Wayne McCrory is a bear biologist with the Valhalla Wilderness Society and one of North America's most respected scientific experts in bear habitat and bear-human interactions.)


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