What Are Spirit Bears?

What Are Spirit Bears?

Steve Russell - February 14, 2023

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North America has some of the most beautiful views of nature and majestic wildlife. You can find alligators, manatees, bison and elk from the swamplands to the mountains. You won’t see lions and tigers in the wild here, but you can find bears. There are three primary types of bears on the continent: black, brown and polar. But have you ever heard of a kermode bear? What are spirit bears? This guide will outline this beautiful creature.  

What Are Spirit Bears?

If you’re familiar with kermode bears, you may have seen a spirit bear before. Spirit bears are a type of black bear. But, they have a rare recessive gene that gives their fur a light color that looks like cream or white. The black bear’s Latin name is Ursus americanus. The spirit bear’s Latin name is Ursus americanus kermodei. 

Though their color is white, kermode bears are not albinos. Their eyes are dark, and their noses resemble those of black bears. An albino bear has pink eyes in addition to its skin. The blood vessels give a pink color because there is no coloration otherwise. It is possible to see a spirit bear that is albino, but most of them get their look naturally. 

Where Can You Find Spirit Bears?

The spirit bears are native to North America. If you want to see one in the wild, you’ll have to travel to British Columbia, Canada, because that’s where most of them are. In fact, the spirit bear is the official mammal of the western province. The Grizzlies may have left Vancouver for Memphis in 2001, but the spirit bears have stayed.  

You can find most kermode bears on three British Columbian islands: Gribbell, Princess Royal and Roderick. Princess Royal is the largest of the three at about 869 square miles. It’s uninhabited by humans, but people did live there once when Surf Inlet boomed as a gold-mining town. Roderick Island is much smaller. James Johnstone chartered the island in the late 18th century. Gribbell Island is just north of Princess Royal Island and lies at the entrance of the Douglas Channel. 

Most of the spirit bears live in this western section of Canada. You may be able to find some as far north as southeast Alaska. However, finding them anywhere else would be pretty rare. British Columbia, specifically those three islands, is your best bet to spot these beautiful bears. 

Who Named Spirit Bears?

The spirit bear gets its name from its light fur color. Some spirit bears have an entirely white color, reminding people of a ghost. The sight of one of these bears is breathtaking, and the ghostly color gives the nickname spirit bear or a ghost bear.

The name kermode comes from researcher Frank Kermode. He is a former director of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Kermode researched the bears and worked with zoologist William Hornaday to describe the unique black bear subspecies. Hornaday was an American zoologist best known for his work as a pioneer in the wildlife conservation movement in the United States. He was also the first director of what you know now as the Bronx Zoo.

What Is Special About Kermode Bears?

In North America and the rest of the world, you’d have difficulty finding people who care more about species than indigenous people. So, what are spirit bears to the natives of British Columbia? Spirit bears are special to the First Nations people of the area. For centuries, they’ve called spirit bears “moskgm’ol,” meaning white bears. The natives hold kermode bears as sacred and have protected them for a long time. 

During the 19th century, these indigenous people protected spirit bears from fur traders and other outside forces who could come into the area and harm the population. Legend has it that Wee’get (known as the raven) made 10% of black bears white to remind people of the Ice Age and the pristine conditions that existed at the time. 

How Many Spirit Bears Are Out There?

Researchers are still determining the exact spirit bear population. However, estimates show a range between 400 and 1,200 kermode bears. The population of kermode bears is declining because of breeding with other subspecies of North American black bears. If the interbreeding continues, the spirit bear could go extinct. 

Again, scientists are still researching the spirit bear because they’re still relatively new to zoologists. The University of Victoria’s Department of Geography studied with some First Nations in British Columbia, including the Gitga’at and Kitasoo/Xai’xais. They found that the spirit population could be lower than previously known. Previous estimates suggested the population of white bears could be up to 500, but the study showed the gene is about 50% rarer than they thought.

What Threatens Kermode Bear Populations?

The low population of spirit bears has caused movements to protect this subspecies from extinction. In the summer of 2022, the British Columbian government banned black bear hunting at the request of the First Nations involved in the study above. The ban on hunting all black bears aims to protect any black bear carrying the recessive gene that produces spirit bears. 

Hunting black bears is illegal in British Columbia, but other factors threaten the population. Climate change has become one of the most significant threats to biodiversity, and the kermode bears aren’t an exception. Most of these bears live in the Great Bear Rainforest, which has come under attack because some people want to use it for logging. However, the Canadian government said most of the forest is off-limits, protecting the spirit bears for the future.

Another threat to the spirit bear would have been new pipelines in British Columbia. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines was supposed to pass by the spirit bears’ habitat. Over 130 indigenous groups opposed the pipeline, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the plans in 2016. 

What Are Spirit Bears? Extraordinary Creatures of the North

When you think of North American animals, what do you imagine? Do you picture elk, moose or grizzly bears? One animal you should familiarize yourself with is the spirit bear or kermode bear of Canada. This unique subspecies of the black bear is a treasured creature of western Canada and has been special to indigenous people for centuries.

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.