Saving the Kermode “Spirit” Bear

A rare form of black bear that often is actually white faces serious threats to survival in its British Columbia habitat

  • NWF Staff
  • Jan 28, 2010

The Spirit Bear 
British Columbia’s 96-square-mile Gribbell Island—cloaked in hemlock, cedar and fir—is home to the world’s highest concentration of the rare “spirit bear”—a pale version of the American black bear. Scientists labeled it the Kermode bear in 1905 after one of the first scientists to study the animal, Francis Kermode.

The Strangest Black Bear of All 
How odd is this: More than a third of Gribbell’s black bears are white, and on nearby Princess Royal Island, to the north, 1 in 10 black bears are white. In all, as many as 500 white Kermodes live in British Columbia, the majority on Gribbell and Princess Royal. The entire subspecies—which can range in color from black to white—adds up to at least four times that number.

The Importance of the Kermode Bear 
 The Kermode stands out as an icon for a rare and endangered ecosystem. British Columbia’s coast represents the world’s last large, intact temperate rainforest. It is home to an abundance of eagles, ospreys and grizzlies. All five species of Pacific salmon spawn in its streams.

Why a White Black Bear?
 The Kermode bear is not a distinct species of black bear but a subspecies with a high frequency of a unique mutation in a pigmentation gene. Population geneticist Kermit Ritland, of the University of British Columbia, led the study that identified the mutation, which involves the same gene that produces the blonde coat of golden retrievers. Most of the island’s black-coated bears carry this recessive Kermode gene. Two are needed—one from each parent—to produce a spirit bear.
 The gene probably rose to prominence during the last Ice Age, Ritland says. Glaciers then covered the Northwest, cutting off a bear population on a glacier-free strip of northern coastline where inbreeding would have helped increase the frequency of the Kermode gene. Lowered sea levels extended the coast over the continental shelf. When the ice retreated and sea levels rose, many bears were isolated on coastal islands. 
 In the early 1990s, evolutionary biologist Tom Reimchen and his students confirmed that Kermodes were part of a lineage of coastal British Columbia bears that evolved separately from other North American bears during the past half million years. Researchers have discovered that white bears are twice as efficient as black in catching salmon, because in the water, the white bears are less visible to the evasive fish.


How the Bear Saved the Woods
 For decades, environmentalists and logging companies battled over the forest that the Kermode bear and so many other species call home, a conflict that people there called “The War in the Woods.” In the 1990s, local environmentalists called for an international boycott of their province’s forest products, circulating pictures of charismatic Kermode bears juxtaposed with images of clear-cut mountains. 
 “The international pressure helped tremendously,” says Merran Smith, of ForestEthics. By 1999, loggers were sitting down with environmentalists, and British Columbia officials were talking with the Gitga’at and other coastal First Nations, which have long revered the bear. In 2006, the group announced the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements, which created a core conservancy of 4.4 million acres that includes nearly 500,000 acres of Kermode habitat closed to logging, mining and hunting. Another 10 million acres remain subject to ecosystem-based management, allowing sustainable development within the context of continuing environmental review. The bear some call “Canada’s panda” played a significant role in achieving the historic agreements, all sides concur. 
More Popular Than the Average Bear
The Kermode bear is British Columbia’s provincial mammal and beloved by school children across Canada. It is even incorporated into one of the mascots for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Stronger Kermode Bear Protections and a New Threat 
To strengthen Kermode protection, the British Columbia government recently extended its ban of white-bear hunting from the coast to the entire province. Meanwhile, a new threat has emerged. The Enbridge Northern Gateway project involves petroleum pipelines stretching from Alberta’s tar-sand fields—one of the world’s dirtiest oil sources—to a northern British Columbia seaport. Loaded supertankers would then traverse the province’s treacherous coastal waters—closely skirting both Princess Royal and Gribbell Islands. Already, numerous ships have hit rocks and sunk in these waters. 
Kermode bears may be uniquely vulnerable to oil spills, biologists fear. Studies show that coastal bears den surprisingly close to the sea and emerge in mid-winter to feed on shore creatures. In addition, the steep coastline often forces bears to travel along the water’s edge.
 Canada’s National Energy Board is reviewing the Enbridge pipeline proposal, approval of which would end a long-standing moratorium on tanker traffic along British Columbia’s coast. “It makes no sense to be sending tankers with toxic tar sands through this environmentally sensitive region,” Smith argues. But the financial incentives are huge, she admits. “This is a multibillion-dollar project that makes our work with the forestry world look like a tea party.”

Adapted from “Icon for an Endangered Ecosystem” by Jessica Snyder Sachs, NATIONAL WILDLIFE, February/March 2010.

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