The Spirit Bear: A Forest Legend
For thousands of years, the shy, ghost-white spirit bear has been a legend in the untamed wilderness of British Columbia. Throughout the ages, it was thought to be a polar bear, an albino grizzly or just an illusion imagined by lonely forest dwellers. It is now known to be a rare blond subspecies of the North American black bear, the product of a gene combination selecting for white hair in about 10 percent of the black bears where the subspecies occurs on the central and north coasts of British Columbia.
Very few people have ever seen a spirit bear, and those who have are considered blessed with good fortune. Tales of the spirit bear figure prominently in the stories of the native peoples who live near the coast in British Columbia. They believe that Raven, creator of native North American peoples, made every 10th bear white as a reminder of the last ice age. Raven also created a lush forest paradise and decreed that spirit bears would live there forever in peace.
The Great Bear Rainforest: Paradise of the Northern Pacific
For most people, the term "rain forest" calls to mind a steamy jungle full of tropical birds and colorful flowers. But rain forests also occur in the temperate zone where the climate is mild and there is plenty of rainfall. Like their tropical, rain forests in the temperate zone are biodiversity hot spots. In fact, the rain forest in British Columbia, which is known as the Great Bear Rainforest, is one of the most biologically rich places on earth.
The Great Bear Rainforest is made up of 1,000-year-old stands of red cedar, spruce, balsam and western hemlock, and contains thousands of other plant species. These old trees are very important to the spirit bears. In winter, the bears use the dry cavities of hollowed-out trees as den
s sites. Baby spirit bears are born in these dens during the middle of winter while the mother bear is still in hibernation. Fed on their mother’s rich milk, they stay safe and warm in the tree dens during the coldest months and then emerge in the spring, ready to forage.
The Great Bear Rainforest also has many mountain streams filled with wild Pacific salmon. In the wild, the tiny Pacific salmon migrate from the freshwater streams in which they’re born to the ocean, which is sometimes many miles away. Once they’ve grown to maturity, they return to their birthplace to spawn. This migration is called a salmon "run." The salmon runs provide an essential food source for a wide variety of forest animals, including the spirit bear.
In addition to spirit bears and other terrestrial animals, the Great Bear Rainforest is home to a variety of marine mammals, including whales. Orcas, also known as "killer whales," live in the waters just off the coast of British Columbia. Orcas are shiny black whales with white chins and underbellies. They are highly social animals and are often seen tail-flipping and leaping out of the water by groups of whale watchers. There are currently about 300 orcas that reside permanently in the waters of British Columbia and several hundred more occur there as migratory visitors.
Endangered Forest/Animals in Peril
Ancient coastal temperate rain forests once spanned the Pacific Northwest from Alaska to California but are now confined to just a fraction of their original range. The Great Bear Rainforest is the largest remaining intact coastal temperate rain forest on the planet. Logging practices such as clear-cutting - in which all trees and plant life are removed from an area – threaten to destroy what’s left of the coastal temperate rain forest in British Columbia. Without measures to protect the habitat of the spirit bear, orcas, wolves, moose, bald eagles and thousands of other majestic creatures, this endangered forest may be lost forever.
Why Is Conservation Important?
The spirit bear is "endemic" or confined to British Columbia. If they disappear from this area, they will be extinct. The spirit bears need the Great Bear Rainforest in order to survive and reproduce. Also, protecting spirit bear habitat means that many other animals are also protected. The spirit bear is what scientists call an "umbrella species," which means that if suitable habitat can be protected for the spirit bear, many other species sharing the same ecosystem will also be protected under this umbrella.
Great Bear Rainforest: A Victory for the Spirit Bear
After years of negotiation with native peoples and citizen groups, the government of British Columbia recently agreed to formal protections for more than 5 million acres of the Great Bear Rainforest. This is an area more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. The protected areas are designated as conservancies, which means that no logging or other development will be allowed. In addition, the agreement includes provisions to allow only sustainable logging practices in the area outside of the protected parkland, allowing native communities to manage their traditional territories and sustain local economies.
Conservation in British Columbia
The establishment of about one-third of the Great Bear Rainforest as parkland was a promising step toward protecting British Columbia’s treasure trove of wilderness and wildlife. The next step is to safeguard the remaining rain forest area and to enact protections for the marine environment. Valhalla Wilderness Society is one of the groups working toward this goal. They are asking the provincial government to protect at least one-half of the Great Bear Rainforest and to enact stringent enough logging guidelines to protect biodiversity outside of the protected areas.
Would you like to help save the spirit bear and the other animals of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest? For more information and ways to get involved, visit the Valhalla Wilderness Society Web site.
By Colleen Cancio