By Jacalyn Beales
Somewhere deep amongst lush, green forests and sprawling coasts, exists a bear living amidst the backdrop of a moss-draped rain forest. With towering mountains and coastline vistas, one could only hope to stumble upon a creature such as this. No ordinary animal, he is a Spirit Bear, a species found only in Canada’s westernmost province of British Columbia. There, lofty cedars hold dominion over the sky and bears are born with white fur.
BC is home to some of the world’s most interesting species, the Spirit Bear arguably the most unique. Neither a polar bear nor an albino, this white permutation of the North American black bear species dwells within British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, looking more like a cream-coloured swath of shag carpet than any black bear you’d ever see. There are eleven different subspecies of black bear, yet spirit bears remain the most fascinating due to their white colouring, small population and significant role in local folklore. Standing stark amongst the rich, green timberland of BC’s Great Bear Rainforest, the notion that this bear is at-risk of endangerment is a difficult one to swallow.
Called moksgm’ol by First Nation locals, legend holds that Raven (the Creator) made one in every ten black bears white to remind people of a time when ice and snow covered the land. Despite the legendary claims, spirit bears are actually white due to the genetic trait of a recessive gene. Estimates put their numbers at less than 1,000, the need to conserve the bear at the forefront of wildlife conservation efforts. Losses in numbers are contributed to by logging and the laying of pipelines, which destroy the habitat of several bear species throughout BC. But the spirit bear has more to fear than just habitat loss.
The rapid decline of BC’s salmon stocks, coupled with the growing presence of Grizzly bears in the Great Bear Rainforest, puts the survival of spirit bears in jeopardy. Grizzlies, one of British Columbia’s famous keystone species, appear to be flourishing in the spirit bear’s habitat despite dramatic losses to their numbers elsewhere across the province. The ban on bear trophy hunting implemented in nine tribal territories throughout the Rainforest has allowed the Grizzly population to grow; and with it, the threat to spirit bears.
Grizzlies have a tendency of dominating the rivers and salmon stocks of their habitats, forcing other species out of prime fishing territory; subsequently, creatures like the spirit bear are forced to expand their horizons to find new food sources. But the fragmentation of habitat from pipelines and logging means the spirit bear may have few options available to it.
To save the species, further action must be taken to ensure that spirit bears have a fighting chance of survival. Habitat loss, declining salmon numbers and environmental stressors are serious issues all warranting the immediate attention of both the province and Canada as a whole. Spirit bears may be the spirit of BC, but their symbolism reaches far deeper, tugging at the cord connecting us all to the nature with which we exist. Few have witnessed the spirit bear, yet even fewer could fathom watching this creature fade into obscurity. The question has become: Will we sit idle, or mend the broken spirit of British Columbia?
You can help save the Spirit Bear by taking action to ensure their habitat is maintained and protected. Visit Save Biogems and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation for more information. If you are interested in helping save BC’s declining Grizzly population, please visit the David Suzuki Foundation.
To view more of Paul Nicklen’s photography, feel free to visit his website.