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NATURE'S BLUEPRINT

From the August 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine © Paul Nicklen/National Geographic

The breathtaking high mountains and steep mountainsides that form deep valleys and fjords along British Columbia’s central and northern coastlines are home to some remarkable animal including: wolves, Sitka deer, killer and humpback whales, tens of millions of salmon, grizzly bears and Canada’s rarest bear the white Kermode or spirit bear.

The spirit bear or as the First Peoples call them the “ghost bear” is a rare color phase that results from two mating black bears that each carry the same recessive gene. I have seen some black bear litters with both black and white (sometimes cream-colored) cubs. Only the cubs that receive the recessive gene from each parent develop the white or cream fur.

About 900 spirit bears are only found in two populations on the globe, both are along coastal British Columbia stretching from about Rivers Inlet to Stewart. One population is mainland-based in the Terrace-Nass-Hazelton area. The other is found between Royal-Roderick, Pooley and Gribell Islands.

On Princess Royal Island about one in every eight black bears is a spirit bear. In Terrace, along the mighty Skeena River, some 120 miles (200 kilometers) north and east of Princess Island the ratio drops to one in forty and further up the river in Hazelton it’s down to one in a hundred.

Kermode  is a black bear subspecies named in the early 1900s in honor of Francis Kermode a former director of the Royal British Columbia Museum, by American naturalist William Hornaday.

Some bear biologists believe that this unique white-phase color evolved on the rainforest islands of the Pacific coastline since the Pleistocene or last glaciation about 12,000 years ago. Moreover, the white-phase of the black bear is believed to be camouflage against the cloudy northern sky when the bear pursues fish during the late summer and autumn salmon runs. In fact, Kermode bears have been observed catching significantly more salmon than the black-phase during daylight; hence the hypothesis of the white-phase genetic advantage.

The First Peoples believe the Raven’s legend: At the beginning of time the world was white with ice and snow. The raven came from the heavens and made the world green. He wanted something, however, to remind him of the icey white beginnings of time. He made every tenth bear on Princess Royal Island white. The Raven also made a promise: The white bears would live here forever in peace.

Until about the late 1970s the spirit bears on Princess Royal Island did in fact live in total peace. They made a living in the majestic western redcedars, hemlock and Sitka spruce forests amongst hundreds of salmon streams, pristine inlets and rare coastal estuaries.

The coastal black bears and Kermodes can reach an astounding weight in excess of 580 pounds (265 kilograms) because of rich salmon- and huckle-berries and the plentiful runs of salmon returning to spawn along the fresh water streams and creeks. In preparation for winter the spirit bears will spend up to 20 hours a day eating – at least three times as much food as they do at other times of the year.

Interestingly, spirit and black bears frequently hunt for fish at night and they take the salmon into the forest to be eaten. Some spirit bears climb the Sitka spruce and western redcedars to devour their prey. My colleagues have estimated the total weight of salmon transported into the forest by a spirit or black bear is about 3,500 pounds (1,600 kilograms) per bear per year.

The nitrogen released from the decaying salmon carcasses is recycled back into the soil and absorbed by millions of tree roots. In time, big old trees uproot, rot and release that nitrogen back into streams to be used by young salmon.

Moreover, many of the largest trees in the valley bottoms live near creeks where their overhanging branches provide shade and keep the water cool enough in the summertime for the salmon to spawn. When these big old trees are harvested they threaten the bears and their food supply, and deplete the forest of its most important and essential nutrient – nitrogen.

In addition, big downed trees create hollows or dens, which are crucial winter habitat for bears.

Spirit bears are intelligent. I have witnessed them walking in creeks with their heads under water hunting for salmon. This is similar to a technique that fish biologists use – a mask and snorkel, and float a river to find and observe fish.

Spirit bears are also playful much like dogs that chase one another in circles.

In the mid 1980s bear biologists Wayne McCroy and Erica Mallam saw that logging along the British Columbia central and north coast would eventually destroy the spirit bear habitat on Princess Royal Island and ultimately threaten this rare beast.

They undertook an 18 years campaign eventually leading to 440,000 acres (200,000 hectares) of land being set aside by the British Columbia government and designated as “The Spirit Bear Conservancy.” And in 2006 the government of British Columbia selected the Kermode or spirit bear as the province’s official animal.

Two decades ago I conducted tree root research along the Copper River just east of Terrace. My encounter with a spirit bear was one of the most spiritual and peaceful events of my life and it lasted over a half an hour.

These critters are truly worth of our respect, and most deserving of the raven’s decree of peace.

Australia, Radio 1, National: Ockham’s Razor

Join Earth Dr Reese Halter on his crusade to protect our planet by watching SOS.

Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2014. All rights reserved.

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