The black and white world of spirit bears

Spirit or kermode bear (Ursus americanus)By Chris Genovali

Seaside Times,
December Issue

The spirit bear’s white fur chest was covered in bright red blood, as if he’d been spattered with paint. The blood red dye job was from the all the salmon he had been eating. With rapt attention, we had been watching him catch fish at river’s edge and then bring them back into the forest to consume.This veteran bear, legendary amongst wildlife viewers and researchers on B.C.’s central coast, was a prolific fisherman. He had a variety of angling styles, but the one that was most fascinating was his use of the belly-flop. There was a large swirling pool created by an assemblage of rocks amongst the fairly fast flowing water and the salmon were gathering in it before heading further up stream. The white bear would launch himself from a rock, legs splayed out, and land with a thunderous splash. When all the spray and wave action stopped he would emerge from the pool, fish in mouth and would pad back up into the bush to feed.

My Raincoast colleague Misty MacDuffee and I were in a small runabout, edged up to a rock in shallow water, near the mouth of the river and quite close to shore. A curious black bear, with distinct phantom of the opera-like markings on his face, wandered down the rocky shoreline and strolled right across the bow of our boat as if it were just another boulder. The black bear circled round again.  We were getting too far into the shallows, so Misty had hopped out of the boat and was balancing on a rock pushing us out into deeper water when the bear padded right up behind her to observe what was going on.

In my most casual tone of voice I said, “Better not take another step backward.” When Misty asked why, I gestured to indicate she should take a peek over her shoulder. We both had to stifle the urge to laugh. The phantom of the opera bear would eventually chase the aging spirit bear off the prime fishing spot on the river, much to our chagrin.

The spirit bear or Kermode Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) is a subspecies of the American black bear and lives only on the Pacific coast of Canada. About one tenth of their population has white color variant owing to a unique recessive trait. Raincoast large carnivore expert Dr. Paul Paquet states that, “The Kermode was designated a subspecies independent of the white variant.  It just happens that some Kermode bears are white.  Genetic assessments have been carried out with more now underway.  Whether the
current taxonomic designation will withstand close genetic scrutiny remains to be seen.”

Among the threats facing the spirit bear are a lack of protection for wild salmon – its primary food source, habitat fragmentation and exploitation of the American black bear. It is illegal to hunt the Kermode bear, but the black bears from which its genetic trait derives are subject to trophy hunting. With the aim of halting the commercial trophy hunting of these recessive gene-carrying black bears, Raincoast is now in negotiations to purchase a 3,500 square kilometer guide outfitting territory that encompasses the heart of spirit bear habitat.  Contact us (donations@raincoast.org or 250-655-1229) to find out how you can support
this initiative.

Did You Know?

Research by UVic’s Dr. Tom Reimchen has shown that, owing to its white coloration, in daylight hours the spirit bear is 30% more efficient than a black bear at capturing salmon.

Isotope analyses done by the Reimchen lab reveals that spirit bears are much more dependent on salmon than their black counterparts.

Chris Genovali is the Executive Director, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

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