The White Bear in the Rainforest

Along the north coast of British Columbia, there is a place where emerald trees extend their trunks towards the sky. Here, mountains tower over rushing rivers as the low-hanging clouds blanket them.

The Kitlope River, located in the Great Bear Rainforest. (The Interior / Wikimedia Commons)

This is the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the largest coastal temperate rainforests remaining in the world. Among the trees in this rainforest, bears with white shaggy coats roam freely, leading a reclusive life just “minding their own business”.

At first glance, you might think that this is a polar bear. But polar bears are found in the cold Arctic, and not in temperate rainforests. What white bears are living in this rainforest then? 

(MPF / Wikimedia Commons)

These are Kermode Bears, also known as Spirit Bears. They are a subspecies of the American Black Bear and live mostly on three islands in the Great Bear Rainforest, Gribbell Island, Princess Royal Island, and Roderick Island. Contrary to popular belief, Kermode bears are not albino, since they have dark eyes and noses. Scientists state that the Kermodes are the way they are due to a mutation of their DNA that causes their unusual colouration.

Kermode Bears (Ursus americanus kermodei, for all you biology geeks out there) were first coined by zoologist Dr. William T. Hornaday in 1905, the first director at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. He named the bear after his longtime friend, Frank Kermode, who was the curator at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria. 

Portrait of Dr. William T. Hornaday (Remitamine / Wikimedia Commons)

However, the Indigenous Communities in British Columbia have known the Kermode bears for thousands of years. They call them moskgm’ol, or white bear. According to the Gitga’at and Kitasoo First Nations legend, the Raven (Goo-wee) was sent by the Great Creator to create the rainforest after the glaciers receded. As he did this, he decided to make 1 in 10 black bears white, so that people can remember the times when the world was covered in snow and ice. He wanted them to be thankful for the resources that they have today. In doing so, he set a large land for these bears to roam. Today, the land that Goo-wee set aside is now known as The Great Bear Rainforest. 

Although the Kermode Bears look different from their normal cousins, they still lead a normal life like other black or grizzly bears. When they are not hunting for food, these bears usually relax under a blanket of fuzzy green moss or explore the islands that they live on. Mothers usually look after their cubs and teach them how to hunt. They are omnivores, meaning that their diet consists of a large variety of foods from berries, to insects, plants, dead animal carcasses and salmon. Their white fur makes it harder for the fish to spot them. Thus, giving Kermode bears an advantage over other bears since their white coat camouflages itself in the cloudy sky making them more successful in catching salmon. 

You might ask, how in the world did these bears end up on these small islands scattered along the coast of British Columbia? According to Kermit Ritland, a population geneticist from the University of British Columbia (UBC), a population of black bears during the Ice Age made their way to the islands when they were connected by ice bridges. When the world started warming up, the glaciers and snow melted away and caused the water levels to rise. As a result, these black bears were left stranded on these small islands. It was around this time that the genetic mutation started and Kermode Bears were born.  

The Kermode Bears also have a positive impact on the ecosystem. After catching the salmon, they drag them into the forest to eat. The nitrogen-rich rotting flesh of the salmon remains then helps to fertilize the soil. Plants and trees benefit from these nutrient-rich soil, which in turn, gives nutrients to the snails, slugs and other insects that eat the plants. This creates a healthy “chain” whereby nutrients are passed down from one organism to another!

In a recent study by the University of Victoria, the Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Gitga’at First Nations, it was shown that the chances of a Kermode Bear being born are very rare. There are only 100-500 of them currently living in British Columbia. A majority of places where the Kermode Bears are common lie outside of The Great Bear Rainforest. Due to logging and other human activities, survival for Kermode bears becomes very difficult. Even though the provincial government has made it illegal to kill Kermode Bears, it is still legal to hunt Black Bears. Since Black Bears carry the genes that Kermode Bears need for reproduction, it makes it even harder for Kermode Bears to reproduce since 1 in 10 Black Bears are born with white fur.

Due to the effects of climate change, salmon populations are dwindling. Thus, in their hunger search for salmon, Grizzly Bears on mainland British Columbia make their way to the Great Bear Rainforest in search of food, creating fierce competitions for the Kermode bears. Due to their huge size, Grizzlies can easily overpower the Kermode Bears, making them more vulnerable as their resources get depleted by these empowering Grizzly bears. This issue, coupled with overfishing, has led to concerns from biologists for the survival of Kermode Bears.

The biggest threat to the Kermode Bear population was the now cancelled Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. This pipeline was going to run from Bruderheim, a small town outside of Edmonton, to Kitimat, a town close to where most Kermode Bears inhabit. Kitimat, which is located in a very narrow fjord, makes it very difficult for oil tankers to navigate to collect oil. The First Nations were concerned that this would lead to oil spills. Already in the region, there have been numerous spills around the BC – Alaska Area, which led to serious effects on wildlife both in water, air and land (one of the most infamous examples of spills in the area was the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill).

After major protests, the plans for the pipeline were mysteriously disregarded by Enbridge, causing many to assume that the project was cancelled. It was later revealed that the project was considered dead after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office. He imposed a ban on oil tankers navigating through the area. Even though it was a sigh of relief for many people living around the Great Bear Rainforest (and helping to save many of the Kermode Bears’ lives), the problems still continued. Since the ban only applied to large oil tankers, oil companies found a loophole by using tanker barges pulled by tugboats. In October 2016, a tugboat pulling a tanker barge close to the forest ran aground on a nearby reef. This resulted in litres of diesel fuel being dumped into the channel. After public outcry, the federal government passed the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, which prohibited any vessel transporting oil (large oil tankers or tugboats dragging tanker barges) from sailing or docking at any port along the coast of British Columbia.

Today, the Great Bear Rainforest is a thriving home for many Kermode Bears. In 2016, the provincial government recognized the importance of preserving the Great Bear Rainforest. They stated the Great Bear Rainforest (Forest Management) Act, a law that protects a large majority of the Rainforest from logging. This was done in collaboration with conservationists, First Nations Tribes and the provincial government That same year, Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, unveiled a plaque in the forest, recognizing that it was part of the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. This was an initiative set up by the Commonwealth in protecting forests.

As the family of Kermode Bears sit by themselves elusively in this precious emerald rainforest, the birds chirp in the trees over them while the salmon-rich river rages on nearby. They close their eyes and nestle comfortably together, knowing that their homeland is safe.

All is well.

(MPF / Wikimedia Commons)

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