Her name was Warrior, for the scar gauged across her nose, just below her left eye.
The close-up of this female Spirit bear (Ursus americanus kermodei) was captured by photographer Michelle Valberg in the Great Bear Rainforest. Warrior was one of four intimate close-up face shots used in a 2019 Canada Post stamp series, featuring also a black bear, polar bear and a grizzly bear.
“Warrior walks around like she owns the forest,” said Valberg to an interviewer when the stamps were first issued. “There’s a regal elegance about her stride that’s incredible to watch.” The Spirit bear has white or cream-coloured fur and has long been featured in the oral traditions of coastal First Nations people.
Intrigued, I needed to know more about this female bear, captured so intimately. So majestic and imposing. Yet, so vulnerable. So beautiful and somehow iconic of Canada. I had to smile when I later learned that the Spirit bear is the official animal of British Columbia.
So, I did more research. I’d already watched several excellent documentaries on the Spirit Bear in its natural habitat in BC’s northern west coast. I watched a recent IMAX film entitled “Great Bear Rainforest: Land of the Spirit Bear.”
I also watched an excellent documentary in David Suzuki’s “Nature of Things” entitled “Spirit Bear Family.” Narrated and filmed by Canadian wildlife filmmaker Jeff Turner, the documentary chronicles the lives of a mother bear and her young two cubs within the Great Bear Rainforest, part of the largest expanse of temperate rainforest left on Earth.
Turner and wife Sue were the first people to film these elusive creatures twenty-five years ago. In this recent episode of Nature of Things, they return with their children to see the bears again. “Although any bear can be frightened by a human presence,” Turner says, “experience has taught me that if you are relaxed, the chances are the bear will be too.”
First of all, the Spirit bear is not an albino; it is, in fact, a subspecies of American black bear, which have white fur when they carry a double-recessive gene unique to their subspecies. Most commonly they are known as the Spirit bear, a romantic alternate to the Kermode Bear, named after Frank Kermode, a former director of the Royal BC Museum. To the Gitga’at First Nation they are known as Moksgm’ol, the Ghost bear. It is estimated that fewer than 400 Spirit/Kermode/Ghost bears are currently in existence. Turner also tells us that, while a white black bear can very rarely occur in other places, the higher numbers—one in ten—of white bears on these west coast islands is due to their isolation in the Great Bear Rainforest and the territory of the Gitga’ata people.
During my Internet research, I ran across this wonderful personal experience of photographer Richard Sidey with Warrior and an older female bear—likely her mother, named Ma’a:
“Early in the afternoon a Spirit Bear appears on the far bank of the river, no more than ten-metres away from my position. The bear looks around slowly and sniffs the air, appearing slightly hesitant as it surveys the river scene ahead. Marven [the Indigenous guide] is speaking quietly explaining that this is an old bear known to him as Ma’a (Grandmother), due to her having raised at least three sets of cubs. She is not quite white, but more vanilla in appearance with darkish rings around her eyes. Ma’a appears to recognise Marven’s voice, immediately dropping her guard and ever so slowly makes her way to the river’s edge.
All bears fish in different ways with varying amounts of energy exertion and success. It is immediately evident that Ma’a one of the passive, patient hunters. Completely still, except for her constantly swivelling head, she watches and waits for the perfect opportunity to collect her fish. After nearly twenty minutes of focus she does just that, and quietly eats her fish just metres from where I sit experiencing a wave of emotions.”
Then Sidey sees another bear approach. “…a second Spirit bear appeared from the forest behind Ma’a and joined her in the riverbed. This was Warrior, a younger bear and likely an offspring of Ma’a due to their apparent comfort being in close proximity of each other. She is beyond striking in appearance, with completely white fur and a large diagonal scar on her nose [from] which her name was derived.”
“Over the next three days I spent several hours with these two rare and beautiful animals, observing, learning, filming and photographing. Late in the final day of my journey, I was watching Warrior at a distance downstream in a dark area of the forest, when she walked into a narrow beam of afternoon sunshine streaming in from a low angle. Against the darkness Warrior was illuminated in an intense warm light that spread throughout her magnificent white coat. With the harsh contrast she appeared suspended in complete darkness and I became overwhelmed in emotion. Through a viewfinder filled with flowing tears I took several photographs before she exited the ray of light and disappeared into the forest.”
Protecting the Spirit Bear and its Habitat
Although the Spirit Bear is not currently listed as an endangered species, considerable conservation efforts to maintain the rare subspecies’ population have been made, thanks in part to the bear’s cultural significance. Main threats to the bear include habitat destruction from oil pipelines and trophy hunting of black bears.
The Spirit Bear gets most of its protein from salmon during the fall season. Salmon are a keystone species and play an important role in the nutrient cycling of both aqueous and terrestrial environments. The salmon contribute nutrients to water during spawning and contribute to the land through decomposition of their carcasses when predators, such as bears, scatter them throughout the forest.
Pipeline spills could cause damage to salmon populations by polluting ecosystems. This would not only affect the bears but also the entire ecosystem. The bear’s habitat was recently under threat from the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, whose planned route would have passed near the Great Bear Rainforest. Indigenous groups including the Gitgaʼat opposed the pipeline, which was ultimately rejected by the federal government in 2016.
Guly, Christopher (2016-11-29). “Canadian government rejects pipeline through rainforests of British Columbia”. Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035.
Hilderbrand, Grant V.; Farley, Sean D.; Schwartz, Charles C.; Robbins, Charles T. (2004). “Importance of salmon to wildlife: Implications for integrated management” (PDF). Ursus. 15(1): 1–9. doi:10.2192/1537-6176(2004)015<0001:IOSTWI>2.0.CO;2
Langlois, Krista (2017-10-26). “First Nations Fight to Protect the Rare Spirit Bear from Hunters”. news.nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved 2017-12-11.
Reimchen, Thomas E.; Klinka, Dan R. (2017-10-01). “Niche differentiation between coat colour morphs in the Kermode bear (Ursidae) of coastal British Columbia”. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. 122 (2): 274–285. doi:10.1093/biolinnean/blx079. ISSN 0024-4066.
Shoumatoff, Alex. “This Rare, White Bear May Be the Key to Saving a Canadian Rainforest”, Smithsonian Magazine, August 31, 2015.
Temple, Nicola, ed. (2005). Salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest (PDF). Victoria, British Columbia: Raincoast Conservation Society. pp. 3–21.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.