New hunting ban aims to preserve B.C.’s rare spirit bear

·4 min read

Some First Nations on B.C.’s central coast are celebrating now that black bear hunting in their territories is closed to protect the exceptional cream-coloured spirit bears concentrated in those areas.

The spirit bear, also known as Kermode bears, are black bears that have a creamy white coat as a result of rare genetic mutation.

Although it’s already illegal to hunt spirit bears, a hunting ban in the region is needed to protect black bears with more typical colouring because it’s impossible for hunters to determine which ones carry the special recessive genetic trait, said Chief Councillor Douglas Neasloss of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation.

The province implemented the ban July 1, covering more than 8,000 square kilometres in Kitasoo Xai’xais and Gitga’at nations’ territories and approximately 13 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest on the West Coast.

“We’re super excited,” said Neasloss.

The ban on black bear hunting is the result of a joint proposal from the Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority (KXSA) and the Gitga’at Oceans and Lands Department and is the end goal of more than a decade of work, Neasloss said.

The ban covers the area within Kitasoo Xai’xais and Gitga’at territories that shelters the greatest concentration of spirit bears in the world — approximately one of every 10 black bears, Neasloss said.

The bears, referred to as moksgm’ol in the Tsimshian languages, have always been protected by the nations that lived with them and figure prominently in Kitasoo culture and oral history, he added.

During the fur trade era, area First Nations didn’t talk about the white bears with outsiders to protect them from hunting, he said.

One spirit bear origin story involves Raven, the creator of the world, Neasloss said.

Raven also created the ice age, and when the ice and snow began to melt, he wanted a reminder, he said.

So, as he was flying overhead, Raven saw Black Bear and decided to turn every 10th bear white and set them in this part of the world, he added.

“Our bear research basically shows that on some of our islands, the numbers are (that) one of 10 bears are white,” Neasloss said.

“Which is hilarious because that’s what our traditional stories said.”

The hunting closures are important for spirit bear conservation and because recent research demonstrates the bears are rarer than previously believed, said Christina Service, KXSA wildlife biologist and a professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria.

The Kitasoo/Xai’xais and Gitga’at have invested in collaborating with scientists to answer long-term research questions to help shape the management and protection of the culturally and economically important bears, Service said.

Research has focused on the distribution and hot spots of the spirit bear, as well as analyzing the effectiveness of protective measures and boundaries, Service said.

“All these are related to the broader question of what information is going to allow us to best steward these animals,” she said.

“I think (the hunting ban) is a great example of evidence-based policy,” she said.

“And it’s exciting that we have such strong datasets to be able to inform policy in that way.”

Preserving the spirit bear is also important to the economic well-being of the Kitasoo Xai’xais and the Gitga’at nations, which rely on the eco-tourism the rare bear generates to employ people in their home communities, Neasloss said.

“Trophy hunting brings in no revenue to local communities,” he said.

“This gives communities a chance to survive in their own backyard.”

Additionally, trophy hunting is contrary to Indigenous values centred around respecting wildlife, Neasloss said.

“It’s very much against our cultural values to shoot something for sport.”

The hunting ban is an encouraging example of government-to-government collaboration, and a good omen for other sought-after regulation changes — and perhaps a model for other areas of the province, Neasloss said.

“This is really the only part of the province where all three bears are protected,” he said.

“Spirit bears, grizzly bears and black bears, and I think that’s really cool.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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