Spirit Bear of the Canadian Rainforest

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When most people hear the word “rainforest” they imagine a steamy jungle filled with exotic plants and animals.  But rainforests can also be found in temperate climates with warm weather and plenty of rainfall.

One such place, the Great Bear Rainforest, is located in British Columbia, Canada, not far from Vancouver.  The Great Bear Rainforest is made up of one thousand-year-old red cedars, spruces, balsams, and western hemlocks, as well as thousands of other plant species.

Like tropical rainforests, temperate rainforests are some of the most biologically rich environments on earth.  British Columbia’s forests are no exception.  They are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including wolves, golden eagles, and white black bears.

You read that right.  British Columbia’s coastal area is home to the Kermode bear — or “spirit bear,” as it is often known.  The Kermode bear is not a separate species, but a subspecies of the American black bear.  The white fur that occurs in about 10 percent of Kermodes is produced by the same gene that produces blond coats in golden retrievers.

Long revered by the First Nations, the spirit bear rose to ecological fame as a symbol of British Columbia’s rainforest — the last large, intact temperate rainforest on earth.  During the 1990s, environmentalists, loggers, and local officials met to decide how to best conserve the forest.  In the resulting Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, 4.4 million acres were protected, with nearly 500,000 acres of habitat closed to logging, mining, and hunting.  The success was due in part to the charm of the Kermode, the bear that some people call “Canada’s panda.”

Scientists think the light-fur gene emerged during the last Ice Age, and recent studies help explain why the gene has not disappeared.  Biologists found that, by day, white bears are twice as efficient as black bears at catching salmon, guessing that Kermodes were less visible to salmon than their dark-furred relatives.  To test this theory, a researcher stepped into a stream, first in black clothes and then in white clothes.  Of course, the fish scattered at first.  But they returned twice as quickly when he was wearing white.  So light fur actually gives spirit bears an advantage.

This advantage may also lead to one of the Kermode’s threats.  In National Wildlife biologist Tom Reimchen is quoted,

“Our working principle is that the white bear is so anchored to salmon that without the persistence or return of salmon to these coastal creeks, its future is totally compromised.”

In fact, the entire ecosystem benefits from “salmon runs” when the fish return to the streams each autumn.  Predators like eagles and bears scatter fish carcasses around the forest, spreading much-needed nutrients.  But salmon populations are declining.  Studies tie the drop to overfishing, infestations of sea lice from salmon farms, and rising water temperatures.

Logging is another threat to spirit bear habitat.  Kermode bears often live near the coast, where there isn’t

Protected Areas of the Great Bear Rainforest

enough soil for them to dig dens.  Instead, the bears make dens in centuries-old stumps of cedar and fir trees.  Even “responsible” logging may fail to preserve hollowed-out tree stumps.

The newest danger facing spirit bears and other species of BC rain forest is the Enbridge Northern Gateway.  This proposed pipeline will carry oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the town of Kitimat.  From there, tankers will travel close along the BC coast, shipping oil to ports on the U.S. West Coast or in East Asia.  A spill from one of these ships, some of which carry two million barrels of oil, would be disastrous for spirit bears and other animals of the temperate rain forest.

Learn more about the spirit bear and the Canadian rainforest:

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