Canada's "Spirit Bears" Gain Perilous Popularity

By Eric Lucas
for National Geographic Traveler
July 25, 2003

TravelWatch is a regular column produced by the Geotourism Editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot, focusing on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. Columns that originally appeared in the print magazine are also published on the Web for National Geographic News. Look out for TravelWatch every Friday.

It is one of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth, with towering peaks, granite-faced cliffs that plunge to indigo fjords, and valleys laced with rushing streams. Humpback, gray, and killer whales cruise the inlets and channels. And deep in the hemlock rain forests of this, British Columbia's central coast, dwells an unusually rare, white form of the common black bear. There may be no more than a few hundred in all, about 160 of them on Princess Royal Island, living amid ten times as many standard black bears. For decades, they have been known as Kermode bears, after B.C.'s early-20th-century provincial museum curator Francis Kermode, the first naturalist to acquire a specimen.

No one seems to know who began calling them spirit bears some years ago. Possibly the name came from a misinterpreted Indian term. The local Git-ga'at people traditionally revere living things in general as spiritual. They do accord masala, "the white bear," comparatively high status: Their hereditary chief is the only official allowed to use it as a crest.

A century of logging and mining on the B.C. coast, however, has not been so respectful of masala's habitat. In April 2001, after long talks with interest groups from timber companies to Indian bands, the province's departing government created the 440,000-acre (178,000-hectare) Spirit Bear Protection Area, mainly on Princess Royal Island. Another 12 million acres (4.8 million hectares) of coast from Bella Coola to Prince Rupert, known as the Great Bear Rain Forest, were set aside for future ecosystem management, a big step toward conserving a natural wonderland of international stature, perfect for nature travelers.

But there are problems.

To start, it's not at all clear what will be protected. A new, more conservative government took office in B.C. in May of 2001, vowing to boost the business climate and review land set-asides made by the previous administration. "There may be some boundary revisions," says Jim Walker, assistant deputy minister of environment, land, and parks. Even on Princess Royal Island, several logging projects and two mines may still get a green light under the new government, with risk to salmon streams on which the bears depend. A moratorium on the projects ended on June 30, 2003, and while the new government has agreed to delay logging for now, environmentalists fear for the future of the Great Bear Rain Forest.

Next is the issue of visitation. Heavily forested, sparsely populated, rugged, roadless, and remote, Princess Royal has not attracted much casual travel. But now the Maui-size island has acquired global visibility. Half a dozen charter boat operators in the mainland ports of Prince Rupert and Port Hardy have been running summer tours. Also during summer, several thousand potential visitors go by almost daily on the massive Alaska cruise liners that ply the Grenville Channel. That raises the specter of scores of cruise tourists prowling the inlets in day boats and Zodiacs, seeking a glimpse of a spirit bear and disturbing stream valleys and sacred Git-ga'at sites.

Many of the Git-ga'at live in Hartley Bay, closest mainland village to the new conservancy. "We want to make sure tourism development is respectful of our own traditions and of the bear itself," says Art Sterritt, a Git-ga'at elder. He helped draft the conservancy agreement. Hartley Bay does want tourism; the community is building a cultural center and feast hall, and has already welcomed a number of "pocket" cruise boats, liners with fewer than 250 passengers.

Native guides take visitors to spirit-bear viewing sites. Sterritt says that Git-ga'at guides know the best spots and are sure to observe strict behavioral guidelines. But the village does not want large numbers of would-be bear watchers trampling nearby valleys. "You can't just start marketing spirit-bear tours and come traipsing up here," Sterritt complains of several outfitters who do just that.

"Unmanaged bearwatching can have a substantial negative impact on bears—driving them off their feeding stations, for instance," says Tony Hamilton, bear biologist with the provincial government. The best solution is to limit watchers to a few designated sites, much as Alaska has done at grizzly bear viewing stations. The people stay put; the bears come and go as they choose.

That's how you watch bears at the one existing accommodation on Princess Royal Island. King Pacific Lodge is a luxury inn on a barge moored in a quiet bay. A wildlife biologist guides guests to bear-watching sites. Says lodge manager Regula Wipf, "We try to be as invisible as possible." Licensed day or overnight tour operators could provide less costly viewing in the future.

Frankly, hoping to see a white bear is not the reason to visit Princess Royal Island. During one four-day stay, you can watch salmon thrash in streams of amber water; duck for cover as black bears (yes, black ones) plunge in to fish for those same salmon; marvel at humpback whales dancing in Grenville Channel or a family of river otters gamboling along the shore; and admire the mile-high granite faces uncloaked as afternoon sun burns off the morning mist. You can go through rolls of film at a haul-out rock where Steller's sea lions carouse; with a rod, you can cast fuchsia flies to catch crimson-splashed cutthroat trout. You may never see a spirit bear, but you'll find something far more significant: spirit of place. If the forests and waters are kept from harm, thousands of visitors can experience that in the future.

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