September 11, 2014 7:30 am
Updated: September 11, 2014 11:20 am

The elusive spirit bear of B.C. may be facing a threat: the grizzly bear


WATCH ABOVE: 16×9’s “Spirit Bear”

16×9 originally aired “Spirit Bear” on October 26, 2013.

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The large, white bear trundles through the underbrush of the Great Bear Rainforest, sniffing the ground beneath its feet. Unbeknownst to the giant beast, he is being watched by a set of mechanical eyes – a remote camera – intent on discovering whether or not this bear is in danger of losing its feeding ground.

This isn’t a polar bear, nor is it an albino bear. It is a bear of many names – spirit bear, ghost bear, Kermode bear, or moskgm’ol. Scientists estimate that one in ten black bears is white, a result of two parents carrying a particular gene.

The verdant forests of the Great Bear Rainforest — which spans roughly 65,000 square kilometres — is often called the Galapagos of Canada. There are hundreds of islands, lush forests, and diverse wildlife.

It is here, mainly on Princess Royal Island, where the spirit bear makes its home.

The rare white bear has been treasured by many coastal First Nations communities for hundreds of years. They didn’t often speak of it, but it is being talked about now.

The Great Bear Rainforest (in green) spans 65,000 square kilometres. (Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, British Columbia/Google Maps)

Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, British Columbia/Google Maps

“I actually didn’t think they ever existed because my community never talked about them,” said Doug Neasloss of the Kitasoo-Xai Xais First Nation. “And part of it was to really conceal the fact that they existed otherwise people would go out and hunt them.”

The spirit bear has long ruled a small area of the coastal islands and some parts of the mainland, but recently scientists believe that its home on the islands has been invaded by an unwelcome visitor: the grizzly bear.

And it’s these bears that some believe may threaten the spirit bear’s existence.

Signs of the decline

Doug Neasloss was a young man when he first saw a spirit bear on a guiding trip. From that day forward, he vowed to spend time out in nature, with the spirit bears.

Over time, however, he began to notice that he wasn’t seeing as many as he once had. He also noticed the presence of more grizzly bears.

“It was probably about 10 years ago we started to see…more and more [grizzlies] every year,” Neasloss said. “We started seeing mothers with cubs on the islands; we started seeing big male grizzly bears hanging out in certain systems.”

Grizzlies were common farther north, less so on the islands occupied by the spirit bear. Was there a connection to the increase of grizzlies and the decrease of the spirit bear? And what was bringing the grizzlies there?

“When you get a grizzly bear that moves onto the island, it really changes the whole landscape of that system you’re in,” Neasloss said.

Neasloss began to sound the alarm. He tried to get people to listen to him. Nobody would.

Eyes on the spirit bear

Neasloss took things into his own hands: he created the Spirit Bear Research Foundation  with funding from the community. He also approached Christina Service and Chris Darimont from the University of Victoria and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation with the observations that he was seeing more and more grizzlies in the area.

“I was interested in documenting that potential move and seeing how that would play out and affect the other bears – spirit bears and black bears.”

Service mounted 36 cameras around the forest in order to document the lives of the bears. It was the largest camera network of its kind in the forest.

Loss of salmon stocks

What she and Darimont believe may be happening is that the grizzlies are forcing the white bears out of prime fishing territory.

“It’ll change things ecologically for sure because grizzly bears are the dominant bear species on this coast. They’re much larger,” said Service.

“When they’re moving into a system, they’re basically king on these salmon rivers.”

Though bears breed in the summer, implantation comes later. Eating enough salmon and getting the fat needed for their bodies is incredibly important.

“If it’s a poor salmon year, which are increasing in frequency these days, the likelihood of that egg implanting goes way, way down,” said Darimont.

Service and Darimont wanted to know if the grizzly invasion was a recent event.

In order to further investigate, they looked upon scientific evidence, which included their cameras. But most importantly, Christina spoke to people within the community, who had spent generations in and around the islands.

“You know, talking to 99-year-old elders in the community gives us a far wider window. So…we can combine these knowledge types to get a far more holistic picture of this grizzly bear movement,” Service said.

They believe that the influx of grizzlies likely occurred sometime after 2000. And the reason likely had to do with their food source.

“Salmon has declined drastically over the last century,” Service said. “So…as salmon goes down and resources go down, these animals might need to…expand their horizons to find food sources.”

“In a system like this,” said Neasloss, looking out at an estuary, “it was capable of sustaining about 80,000 fish at one point. And now we’re down to about five or six thousand in some of these systems.”

Future of the spirit bear

What this means for the livelihood of the spirit bear isn’t yet fully understood.

Some believe that grizzlies and spirit bears can co-exist.

“There’s other parts of the world and of the province that blacks and grizzlies definitely do co-exist,” Service said. “But we know that when they do co-exist, those blacks are eating less meat. So they do change their diet in the presence of grizzly bears.”

“For a species like a white bear where there’s already so few of them…that change in diet could have an impact on their population. But again these are all things that we’re just starting to tease apart and find out.”

Legend of the spirit bear

The spirit bear has long been a cherished part of the Kitasoo/Xai’xias First Nation culture, which call it the moskgm’ol.

As with most of the legends of creation, the story of the spirit bear comes through the tales of the Raven. At one time the world was covered in ice. The Raven – Goo-wee – created the green but wanted something by which to remember the great ice. The Raven chose the black bear, the keeper of dreams and memory, promising the bear peace if he would let one out of every ten bears turn white.

Don’t miss an encore presentation of 16×9’s “Spirit Bear” this Saturday at 7pm.

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