First Nations, province move to ban black bear hunting in an effort to protect rare spirit bears

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Spirit bears, also known as kermode bears or moksgm'ol in the Tsimshian language, are black bears with a white coat, the result of a recessive gene. (Credit: Douglas Neasloss - image credit)
Spirit bears, also known as kermode bears or moksgm'ol in the Tsimshian language, are black bears with a white coat, the result of a recessive gene. (Credit: Douglas Neasloss - image credit)

The provincial government has banned the hunting of black bears in the territories of the Kitasoo/Xai'xais and Gitga'at First Nations in the Great Bear Rainforest, in response to a joint proposal by the nations to protect one of the rarest bear species on the planet: the spirit bear.

"This is the only part of the world where you'll likely find a spirit bear," said Douglas Neasloss, co-ordinator for the Kitasoo/Xai'xais Stewardship Authority (KXSA).

"Anytime someone shoots a black bear, it could be carrying that recessive gene so we wanted to see that hunt over."

Spirit bears, also known as kermode bears or moksgm'ol in the Tsimshian language, are black bears with a white coat — the result of a recessive gene found in about one in 10 black bears in British Columbia's Central and North Coast regions, according to research from the University of Victoria in collaboration with the nations.

Credit: Douglas Neasloss
Credit: Douglas Neasloss

The B.C. government announced the new regulations on July 1, which include stipulations on hunting closures covering 8,158 square kilometres of Kitasoo/Xai'xais and Gitga'at territories, and approximately 13 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest. It is a region wildlife biologists say is home to the highest concentration of black bears possibly carrying the rare gene.

Neasloss says this is the only part of the world where spirit bears appear. "It's just such a rare thing to see something so beautiful and white just come out of a dark green forest," he said.

"It's one of the most magical things you can see."

In an emailed statement to CBC News, the B.C. Ministry of Forests said the "no-hunting area expands on existing closures to cover areas where the highest concentration of genetic mutation occurs and aligns with Indigenous knowledge."

'Reservoir for this rare genetic mutation"

Dr. Christina Service, a wildlife biologist with KXSA, helped map and examine genetic diversity in bear populations along the B.C. coast.

"Alarmingly, recent research shows these bears are even rarer than previously believed," Service told CBC News. Population estimates of spirit bears in B.C. are still under review by researchers, but the Kitasoo/Xai'xais Nation estimates they currently fall between 50 to 150.

To define the closure area, Service said she and her team gathered hair samples from bears along the coast to determine their genetic makeup.

"Those black bears are a really important reservoir of this rare genetic mutation," she said.

Neasloss, a member of the Kitasoo/Xai'xais Nation, says his stewardship work builds on the nation's ban on trophy hunting in 2012 and the 2016 ban on hunting grizzly bears.

"That was a massive step in the right direction, but we feel that we felt the job wasn't done because black bears were still there and were still allowed to be hunted," he said.

Credit: Douglas Neasloss
Credit: Douglas Neasloss

The spirit bear has deep cultural significance in many Indigenous cultures, and is commonly featured in songs, dances and stories. It has also been named the provincial mammal emblem of B.C.

Neasloss adds that preserving spirit bears benefits the community economically, citing revenues from ecotourism bear-viewing.

"This is really the first time since I've been working with bears that we can say all bears are now protected within the territory and that is massive," said Neasloss, who has worked in bear preservation for the past 20 years.

He commends the work of the Indigenous stewardship departments of the two nations.

"There was a lot of work done to get to this point, and it has been a long time coming," said Gitga'at Nation Councillor Marven Robinson in a statement. Robinson is a guide for spirit bear-watching tours in Hartley Bay, a coastal village about 630 kilometres north of Vancouver, and 145 kilometres south of Prince Rupert.

"Our job is to protect our territory and finally end things like this kind of bear hunt, something our cultures don't support," said Neasloss.

"Whether it was lobbying or negotiating with the province, it's very progressive of both the Kitasoo/Xai'xais and Gitga'at nations to get here."

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