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Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Dec 21, 2014

DianneErskineHellrigelThe “spirit bear” or “ghost bear” holds a prominent place in the stories and myths of indigenous people in North America. Stories about these creamy white bears spread from British Columbia to people in the area that is now the United States, where they were assumed to be mythological creatures.

In fact, the spirit bear of legend is the Kermode bear. The Kermode bear (Ursus americanus kermodeii) is a black bear with a double recessive gene that is common in the population of black bears near British Columbia.

They are not albinos and they are not polar bears. Kermode cubs can be born from black or white mothers. Two black bears possessing the same recessive trait will produce a Kermode bear 25 percent of the time. A Kermode bear and a black bear will produce a Kermode bear 50 percent of the time. Two Kermode bears will produce a Kermode bear 100 percent of the time.

spiritbear1It is unclear where the kermodism came from. One hypothesis is that it is a remnant adaptation from the last great Ice Age, which ended 11,000 years ago. It is believed that the white color may have offered camouflage to black bears. But why didn’t it die out when the glaciers receded? The name “Kermode” comes from Francis Kermode, who researched this subspecies of black bear.

I first became aware of the spirit bear through a novel by Ben Mikaelsen called “Touching Spirit Bear.” In this novel, a troubled youth comes to terms with himself after encountering a spirit bear in an island forest. The book explores the folklore and beliefs of Native American people.

The Kermode bear lives in the Great Bear Rain Forest of British Columbia. The highest population of these bears can be found on the islands Princess Royal and Gribbell. Nearly 20 percent of the black bears found on these two islands are white.

spiritbearmapFour bears as far as Minnesota and Manitoba have been reported. One bear had a recessive gene similar to the Kermode bears. One did not. The others were never studied.

This recessive gene can be compared to the gene in humans that is responsible for red hair or blue eyes. Both parents must possess this gene for the cub to have white fur. The fur is shed each spring, and the new growth of the fur is particularly white and stunning.

Kermode bears live in dense rainforests where there is an abundance of plant life and streams. They eat all kinds of vegetation, fruit, bulbs, insects, rodents, nuts and salmon. There is an abundant supply of food for them in the rainforest. They winter over in hollow trees or rocks, or they dig out shelters in the hillsides. They line their shelters with grass, leaves and twigs for insulation and cushion. During the winter, they enter a “quasi-sleep” mode to conserve energy. Their bodies utilize the fat they’ve stored during the spring-fall season when food was plentiful.

spiritbearCubs are born to pregnant females during hibernation, and they emerge together in spring when the weather conditions have improved. Cubs weigh about one-half pound at birth and remain with their mother for about two years. Litters can be from one to three cubs; the average is two at a time.

The lifespan of these bears is about 25 years. Males can weigh up to 300 pounds and females about 175. At maturity they are about 6 feet tall.

The major threat to this species is loss of habitat through logging. Climate changes due to many factors could also be a threat over time. Commercial fisheries could threaten the salmon supply through over-fishing and pollution.

As spirit bears are fairly isolated, they have no fear of man. This could also lead to trouble for their survival in the future.

While there are certain protections in place, we need to consider additional protections in the future, such as placing their habitat areas into a “wilderness” designation to prevent logging, and eliminating fisheries from decimating their source of food on the islands. The current total population is estimated to be 1,300.

 

Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. If you’d like to be part of the solution, join the Community Hiking Club’s Stewardship Committee. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.

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