bc-081029-spirit-bear-FULL

The rare spirit bear was captured and relocated by conservation officers near Elkford, B.C. ((Sarah Smith))

A blue-eyed, blond-haired visitor has been raising eyebrows in the small, southern Interior B.C. town of Elkford near the Alberta border.

An all-white bear, which locals are calling a "spirit bear," has been hanging around town in recent weeks.

"It's aroused a lot of passion in our town, a lot of spirit. People want this bear protected," said resident Kathy Zarchukoff, who was so struck by the creature she became its protector, plastering posters all over Elkford telling people about the extremely rare black bear.

The young female bear was eventually trapped by conservation officers and moved out of town, only to return.

Conservation officer Tony Hamilton, who is also a large carnivore specialist with B.C.'s Ministry of the Environment, said the capture gave researchers a chance to take hair and blood samples to determine why the bear was blond.

"It would be good for us to know what the genetic cause is. There is no conservation or management goal here. We just want to get more knowledge on coat colour variation across B.C.," said Hamilton.

Not a true spirit bear

This is the first time Hamilton knows of a white bear being captured in the southern Interior of B.C. and he wants to know more about its genetics. He does not believe it's a so-called spirit bear or a cinnamon phase black bear, which are also known to be light brown or blond.

"I don't normally counsel people to go chasing after bears with a hair brush. So this is really rare," said Hamilton.

The blond bear resembles a so-called spirit bear, or kermode bear, but those names normally refer to a unique subspecies of black bear which lives on the northwest coast of B.C.

Scientists believe that population carries a unique genetic marker which makes one in 10 bears blond or light brown. The animals are revered in the mythology of many First Nations in B.C. and one of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic mascots is part spirit bear.

Anywhere else in North America white bears are considered extremely rare and it is illegal to hunt them in B.C.