Spirit Bear

The all white Kermode or Spirit Bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) is the rarest of the North American bears and something of a “holy grail” for wildlife enthusiasts and photographers, and of great spiritual significance to the Pacific Northwest First Nations community who consider its appearance to be a very good omen.

A genetic variation of the ubiquitous North American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), the Spirit Bear is not an albino but rather the product of two parents possessing a common recessive gene. Because both parents must possess the gene in order to produce a white cub, it is possible for a white cub to have two black parents (if they both carry the gene), or a white parent to have a black cub (if it’s mate does not carry the gene). Due to the delayed implantation common among bears which means a female may carry eggs fertilized by different males, a female carrying the gene may even have a mixture of black and white cubs in a single litter.

You can also be one of the lucky few to share this experience on a Wildlife Trails tour to the Central Coast of British Columbia in September and October. From a base in the heart of a traditional First Nations community you can travel by boat to remote locations on this island group and adjacent mainland where Spirit Bears are know to fish for salmon, and then view them on foot, often using natural hides, in the company of expert First Nations guides and well known wildlife conservationists and biologists. Due to the sensitivity of the areas visited, a maximum of 6 visitors are accommodated at any given time.

Spirit Bears can occur in any Black Bear population but are exceptionally rare, except on a cluster of heavily forested islands off the Central Coast of British Columbia where there is an unusually high concentration of the recessive gene. Here 1 in 10 black bears are born white, and on some of the islands the ratio may be as high as 1 in 4. Although otherwise identical in biology and behaviour to other black bears, there is scientific evidence to suggest that spirit bears have some inherent advantages due to their otherwise very conspicuous colouration. Studies have shown that spirit bears have a greater degree of success catching salmon in broad daylight than their black brethren. This seems to be a result of their lighter colouration and light reflection off the water’s surface, and may account for adult white bears being larger on average that their black contemporaries in the same area.

Spirit Bears are currently afforded no legal protection from trophy hunters but are in effect made safe in their island home thanks largely to the will and wishes of the First Nations people who lay claim to the land on which they live. A number of influential conservation groups are however actively working in partnership with First Nations groups to pursue legislation to protect Spirit Bears and their habitat, and is to be hoped that this popular movement will receive government backing so that future generations may still be lucky enough to glimpse this rare and elusive spirit of the Great Bear Rainforest.