Canada's Huge New Preserve Protects Rare "Spirit Bears"

Anna Petherick
for National Geographic News
March 1, 2006

After more than ten years of dispute, government, industry, environmental, and indigenous groups in British Columbia (see map) agreed last month to create a massive new wilderness preserve.

The Great Bear Rainforest lies within a 15.5-million-acre (6.3-million-hectare) region of steep-sided fjords and islands along the Canadian province's Pacific coast.

Under the deal, the new park's 4.4 million acres (1.8 million hectares)—nearly twice as large as Yellowstone National Park—are off limits to loggers and largely closed to mining exploration.

Logging companies can fell trees in a sustainable manner over the rest of the region.

"[The agreement is] a living process, which I don't think is ever finished. But in today's terms, I think we have balance," said Gordon Campbell, premier of British Columbia.

Genetic Variant

According to tribal legend, a godlike creator in the form of a raven turned one of every ten black bears white to remind humankind how clean the Earth was during the Ice Age.

These "spirit bears" live almost exclusively in the temperate rain forest region that stands at the heart of the decade-long land dispute.

Spirit bears, also called Kermode bears, are not albinos. They are rare genetic variants of the black bear (see photo), with black skin underneath white fur. Only a few hundred of the white bears are known to exist.

"Last year I saw seven white cubs on one river—all of them had black mothers," said Marvin Robinson, a spirit-bear guide of the Git-ga'at First Nation tribe.

Robinson, 36, spends his days from August through the first week of October taking tourists by boat to viewing platforms he built along several of the region's rivers.

From there visitors can safely watch spirit bears splatter their white fur with blood as they gorge on migrating salmon.

Continued on Next Page >>


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