Where grizzlies roam, spirit bears are seldom seen
Words by Susan Prior
Photographs by Yvonne Todd
The Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada, and Mooksgm’ol, the spirit bear
In the dingy half-light, under the heavy canopy of one of the world’s largest rare tracts of temperate rain forest – western red cedar, yew, hemlock, and spruce – the muffled trickle of rain drips through leaves and lichen to the saturated ground beneath. The hikers take deep breaths as they walk, savouring the forest perfume that is a contradiction of fresh sweetness and decayed, earthy rot.
Just out of sight, below the path they are picking their way along, they hear the rush of clear water as it runs over the seaweed-covered rocks and out into the bay. The salmon are starting to run – a biological imperative – heading upstream to certain death. This other-world, shrouded in mysterious swirling mists, is known as the Great Bear Rainforest. At nearly 65,000 square kilometres, almost the size of Ireland, it is an elemental land of boulders, trees and ice. Remote and mountainous, the terrain is interlaced with pristine fjords flecked with thickly forested islands. This beating heart stretches down Canada’s west coast.
Deep in the forest, the photographers press on. They have come here for one reason only – to capture images of the endangered spirit bear. Known by First Nations peoples as Mooksgm’ol. Very few of these white bears survive today. Estimates number them somewhere between 400 and 1000 animals; many are concentrated on two isolated islands, Princess Royal and Gribbell Islands at the entrance to the Douglas Channel on the British Columbian coast of Canada.
This forest, the largest intact tract of temperate rainforest in the world, and its resident spirit bears have been hanging on in their habitat against the odds. There have been multiple threats gnawing at the edges of this forest’s existence and that of the species which share this precious wilderness – oil pipelines, navigation of sinuous fjords by tanker behemoths, logging, over-fishing, and the increasing numbers of the more aggressive and assertive grizzly bears.
But like the mists that swirl over the mountains and evaporate on a sunny morning, some of these threats to the spirit bears’ existence may be receding. Although, the spirit bear, which has been the poster child of the conservation campaign over the years, may yet need more help if it is to survive.
In early February, 2016, the protection of 85 per cent of this forest from industrial logging was finally assured. It has taken twenty years of getting disparate groups with very differing opinions to the negotiating table, and ten years since the first announcement was made about the intention to protect the forest. Negotiations have taken place between timber companies, environmental groups and more than 20 separate First Nations before the agreement could be formalised. This is an amazing achievement and one that deserves worldwide recognition.
Then, on 29 November 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Enbridge’s proposed 1177-kilometre Northern Gateway Pipeline, which was to carry oil from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat at the head of the Douglas Chanel in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, will not go ahead. After years of debate, lobbying and arguing, Trudeau, describing the forest as the ‘jewel’ of BC, says, ‘The Great Bear Rainforest is no place for a pipeline and the Douglas Channel is no place for oil tanker traffic’.
These are both huge pluses for the future of the spirit bear. But there are other threats, too.
Moss and lichens flourish in this underworld cavern of evergreen shadows, disguising fallen logs and making trekking a slippery challenge. At their guide’s signal, the group breaks for a rest. These five wildlife photographers, three of whom have until now never met, and who barely even share the same language, have been travelling for days to get here from all points of the globe, and they are exhausted. Marven Robinson, their guide, assures them they are getting close.
Robinson, is a member of the Gitga’at First Nation. This area of British Columbia is his home turf. He knows it and their quarry intimately and makes his living guiding visitors through the dense forests. Daisy Gilardini leads the team; she has been here before and has invited the four other photographers to join her on this venture.
Gilardini belongs to the International League of Conservation Photographers, ‘a U.S. based non-profit organisation whose mission is to further environmental and cultural conservation through photography.’ Her speciality is photographing bears in the wild. She, too, is in her element.
Australian wildlife photographer Yvonne Todd pulls off her daypack and reaches for her water bottle. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she glimpses a white shadow padding slowly and deliberately along the forest path towards where she is resting. They all hold their breath. Mooksgm’ol. This is what they have trekked through the forest and clouds of midges to witness, and now they are so unbelievably close to this rare and elusive animal. Seldom having contact with humans, these bears have little reason to fear the photographers.
Todd’s journey, and the one you must take, too, if you want to visit, took her from Australia to Vancouver. From there she flew into Prince Rupert, a remote coastal town further north, just shy of the Alaskan border. An assortment of school buses and ferries took her on the final leg of her journey to a remote island that was to be their base for the duration of the expedition. Each day, the group headed out by boat and on foot in search of the elusive spirit bears.
Todd says the thrill of photographing these bears in their own environment is a real adrenaline rush. ‘It is so exciting. I don’t feel any fear, even though we can get very close. One bear got so close to me it was too close; I couldn’t even take a photograph.’
Mooksgm’ol – the name given to the spirit bear by the First Nations peoples – is spoken in hushed and reverential tones. Its other names are the Kermode bear, the ghost bear, or Ursus americanus kermodei. This bear may have white fur, but it is, in fact, a black bear, and should not to be confused with an albino. A double recessive gene gives it its white colouring, similar to the gene in humans that gives some of us red hair and freckles.
Part of the Indigenous peoples’ oral tradition is a legend about mooksgm’ol. Millennia ago, the glaciers retreated, leaving behind a forest of rich, verdant green. This ethereal woodland was created by Raven, or Goo-wee, and it is Raven who decided to make one in ten of the black bears white – as a reminder of the frozen world that had gone before.
For the First Nations peoples, killing the spirit bear is taboo, so when Europeans arrived they kept their silence, deliberately not disclosing anything about this creature that is so revered by them. They hunted the black bears for their fur to sell to the European traders, but not the spirit bear. For the First Nations, Mooksgm’ol is divine, so sacrosanct that its name is barely even mentioned around their dinner tables. Which meant that for years white man remained ignorant about the existence of the white bear.
Kermode bears, both black and white, are the only species of bear to evolve in the Americas. They existed for 400,000 years before the arrival of polar bears and grizzlies just 100,000 years ago. How much longer the white spirit bears will survive is open to speculation.
When the salmon runs, the spirit bears switch from a diet of crab apples, green plants, berries and small rodents to the rich oily fish, and especially the delicate roe and brain, fattening themselves up before hibernating for the winter. Research has shown that spirit bears are better at fishing, having a higher strike rate than their black cousins, but they are also more dependent on salmon.
Habitat destruction and overfishing have seen a tragic decline in salmon numbers. Doug Neasloss of the Spirit Bear Research Foundation in Canada says that an estuary once capable of sustaining 80,000 fish may be down to as few as 5000 or 6000. The reason for this decline is the subject of conjecture, and academic research. A paper published by Fisheries and Oceans Canada says, ‘The most likely reasons for the decline in Pacific salmon stocks include a combination of climate change, overfishing, and freshwater habitat destruction. There have also been suggestions that salmon farming in British Columbia has contributed to the decline of salmon stocks.’
Whatever the reason, salmon are critical for the survival of the spirit bear.
According to Jim Cooperman, president of the Shuswap Environmental Action Society, last year the iconic Adams River salmon run, further south, has collapsed with only 3000 sockeye salmon returning from an expected 1.2 million fish.
Dr Thomas Reimchen, Adjunct Professor with the Department of Biology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, says, ‘I would be dubious if the white bears persist when their salmon disappear, and they are almost gone already.’
To add to these woes, more research from the Spirit Bear Research Foundation suggests that larger, more aggressive grizzlies are hunting this diminishing food source in the spirit bears’ traditional hunting ground, particularly on the islands in the fjords that weave through the forest. Grizzly numbers have risen dramatically with a decrease in poaching and hunting in the forests, putting pressure on food sources, including the now-precarious salmon run.
And where grizzlies roam, spirit bears are seldom seen.
Crouched beside the fast-flowing rapids, the five photographers wait, perched precariously on the slippery rocks, cameras at the ready. The object of their lenses, a female spirit bear, is poised on rocks above a salmon run through the rocks. She waits, patiently, quietly. Three hours she has been there fishing. For nothing. And three hours the photographers, too, have lingered, cramped and cold as the light gradually fades behind the red cedars.
Robinson says in the past he has seen bears scoop fish out of these waters, one after another, ripping them open with the tip of a claw, pulling out the tasty roe, and discarding the remainder. But today this female is out of luck. Not one fish. Reluctantly, the photographers pack up and leave, too dark now to get any decent images.
The first step in the process of helping the spirit bear came with the agreement to permanently protect 85 per cent of the forested area from logging. The second step comes from killing Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline.
It is a start.