By Amy Fendley
In early July, John Spencer-Nairn, head guide at Cougar Mountain, and a group on an ATV tour spotted a white bear on Rainbow Ridge.
"It was a half a kilometre up the hill from Indian Head quarry," says Spencer-Nairn. "There was a black mother with a black cub and a white cub. No one else had seen them here, and no one has seen them since. I heard a story of someone seeing a white bear in the Soo last year, but I don’t know for sure, I only heard about it."
Contrary to earlier belief that white bears, also known as kermodes or spirit bears, exist only in the north-western temperate rain forest of coastal B.C, they have in fact have been spotted in an area that extends southeast from Princess Royal Island and Gribbell Island to Prince Rupert, Kitimat and as far inland as Hazelton. And perhaps as far south as Whistler, as the extent of kermode territory is just about as unknown as how many of the unusual bears exist.
"Approximately 300 to 400 exist," says Paul George, the founding director of the Western Canadian Wilderness Committee. "They are quite rare, about one in 10 in the areas where they are found.
"People are coming from all over the globe to the coastal regions of B.C. to look for the spirit bears. They are looking, and to look they have to have a lot of money," says George. "The kermodes come down to the intertidal zones to feed, and because they haven’t been hunted in a long time, there’s a fairly good chance to see one. But the only way we can protect them is by ensuring habitat protection. By not having roads for people to get at ’em."
Local black bear researcher Michael Allen, says he has not seen a white bear in the area.
"It was probably a blonde-phased black bear, maybe an albino," says Allen. "Information sometimes gets distorted though, and I’d have to see it to believe it."
Spencer-Nairn is convinced that a blonde-phased black bear in one way or another is what it was.
The kermodes were first described scientifically in 1905 by William Hornaday. He regarded them as a distinct species and named them after Francis Kermode, a Canadian colleague who had secured data and specimens for him.
In 1928, scientists confirmed the suspicion that the kermode was simply an unusual white geographic race of black bear, an ursine oxymoron.
It’s white colouration is caused by a double recessive gene, meaning that the recessive gene must occur in both of the breeding bears. When these two bears mate the resulting cubs can range in colour from black, brown, cinnamon to white. It is not unusual to have a white cub and a black cub born from the same mother.
However, only the white bear is protected from the hunter. In a form of racial bear discrimination, the irony is that the black bears that carry the recessive genes may still be legally hunted.
Scientists have given the name Ursus americanus kermodei to the rare white subspecies of black bears, as unique as the panda bears of China.
"We have completed genetic studies of all of the coastal and continental black bear subspecies, including white bears," says Dr. T.E. Reichen of the department of biology at the University of Victoria. Reichen’s studies "have found that kermodei are very closely related to the Haida Gwaii bear and Vancouver Island bear, but they are very dissimilar to black bears from Interior B.C. Coastal bears have been genetically isolated from continental bears for at least 350,000 years based on molecular divergence."
To the Tsimshian people of the Pacific coast, it is Moksgm'ol, the white bear put on the planet by the creator to remind people of the age when much of the land was covered by glaciers.
The Tsimshian people attribute the white kermode bears with supernatural powers, hence the names spirit or ghost bear.
There is currently no sanctuary for the kermode. Environmentalists are fighting to establish a large natural reserve of up to 150 islands and thousands of kilometres of shoreline called the Spirit Bear Park, which like the Stoltmann, is in the "proposed national park" stages.
George says destruction of critical bear habitats and key salmon runs threatens the evolution of this significant pool of bears with the recessive white bear gene.
Princess Royal Island, the proposed Great Bear Rainforest region of B.C.’s north coast, supports a large population of kermodes with its old-growth hemlock and cedar forest, tidewater estuaries rich with grasses, roots and berries, and streams of spawning salmon. Logging companies are also active in the area.
Local conservation officers and kermode researcher Charles Russell were unavailable for comment on the Whistler spirit bear sighting.