As It Happens

B.C.'s revered spirit bear is rarer than anyone thought, says First Nations-led study

Douglas Neasloss says there was a time when his people didn’t talk about spirit bears because they wanted to protect them. Now, he says the opposite is true. 

A genetic variance produces the rare white-coated Kermode bear

A Kermode bear, better known as the spirit bear, is seen fishing in the Riordan River on Gribbell Island in the Great Bear Rainforest, B.C., in 2013. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Douglas Neasloss says there was a time when his people didn't talk about spirit bears because they wanted to protect them. Now, he says the opposite is true. 

Neasloss is the elected chief councillor of the Kitasoo/Xai'xais First Nation, and the co-author of a new study on the genome of the spirit bear, a.k.a. Kermode, a rare, white-furred variant of the black bear in British Columbia's Central and North Coast regions.

The research found that the bears — which are culturally significant to Indigenous people in the area — are less common than previously believed and that more work needs to be done to protect them. 

"It's probably one of the rarest bears on the planet," Neasloss told As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. "And through our latest research, we found out it's a lot more rare than we thought."

The study was published in the journal Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

His first 'magical' encounter with a spirit bear

Neasloss is the resource stewardship director of the Kitasoo/Xai'xais First Nation, whose people have a deep connection with the spirit bear. 

But he didn't even know they existed until he saw one up close for the first time in the early 2000s.

He was working as an ecotourism guide in central B.C. when his supervisor told him to go look for one.

"I thought they were just pulling my leg," he said. "I never heard about it in my community."

Nevertheless, he set off on a hike to explore the forest.

"A few minutes into the trek, I basically almost came face-to-face with a spirit bear. And here he was walking across the forest with a salmon in his mouth," Neasloss said.

"I'll never, never forget that moment."

Douglas Neasloss, elected chief councillor of the Kitasoo/Xai'xais First Nation, watches a spirit bear. (Marni Grossman)

As the creature plopped down in front of Neasloss to feast on its fish, he says the clouds parted and the sun shone down.

"And there was the spirit bear, pure white coat. And he was sitting there eating the salmon, and you see all the blood on his face," Neasloss said.

"And that was certainly a very magical moment and kind of helped propel me into sticking with tourism."

Combining science with First Nations knowledge

When Neasloss asked his nation's elders why he had never heard of the bear, he says they told him they kept quiet about the animal to protect it from those who would hunt it for its fur. 

"So it was kind of a big secret. Up until, you know, kind of the late '90s, nobody really knew about spirit bears," he said.

Now, the spirit bear is the provincial mammal of British Columbia, a major tourist draw, and a powerful symbol for conservation efforts. 

"[In] today's day and age, I think we're starting to shift our focus and trying to be a bit more vocal with it, because ... these bears are under a number of threats."

Christina Service, right, and Krista Duncan, left, set up a non-invasive wire corral to collect fur samples from bears in B.C. (Cael Cook)

Still, Neasloss says very little is known about spirit bears. That, he argues, makes it hard to enact policies to protect them.

It's also why he participated in the study, which was an eight-year collaboration between First Nations stewards from the Kitasoo/Xai'xais and Gitga'at First Nations, the University of Victoria, the Spirit Bear Research Foundation and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

"We thought we would drive the science ourselves," he said.

"We also merged our science with First Nations knowledge and hopefully are able to provide some strong information to decision makers so we can do more to protect them." 

A research technician from the Kitasoo/Xai'xais First Nation collects hair from sampling site. (Santana Edgar/Spirit Bear Research Foundation)

Researchers worked with members of the First Nations to collect fur samples from 385 black bears along 18,000 square kilometres of the Great Bear Rainforest using non-invasive wire corrals and "extremely stinky" scented lures.

The bears were drawn to the alluring scent of fish oil or beaver anal gland secretions and would rub up against the wire for a good scratch.

Scientists were then able to study the samples in the lab to determine how many bears carried the recessive gene that produces the unique reddish-white coat on some black bears — the same gene that causes red hair in humans. 

"CSI-style, from each hair, we determined the individual bear's genetic fingerprint, sex, species and for black bears, the specific carriers of the spirit bear gene," Christina Service, wildlife biologist for the Kitasoo/Xai'xais Stewardship Authority, told the Vancouver Sun.

The gene that produces the spirit bear's white fur is rarer than previously believed, according to a new study. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

They discovered the genetic variance is 50 per cent rarer than previous estimates.

They were also able to map the populations and found that only half of the areas with high concentrations of spirit bears are protected.

From science to advocacy 

Armed with this information, Neasloss now hopes he and his colleagues can convince governments to create new conservation areas aimed specifically at protecting the creatures.

"The spirit bear is very important in our part of the region. There's a few communities that revere it as a very sacred animal," he said.

"I would say it's not just important culturally, but also in terms of economics. I mean, we built a tourism lodge, and this is one of the only places in the world that you can come and view a spirit bear." 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hikes.

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