Naturalist's Notebook Guest Post: Photographing the Endangered Spirit Bear

British photographer, conservationist and environmental traveler Jenny Varley shared with us some of the amazing photos she took of Kermode (KER-mode) bears, one of the world's rarest animals, on the coast of British Columbia in Canada. Kermodes (named for Francis Kermode, a Canadian zoologist who studied them) are also called spirit bears because of their white, ghostlike coloration. They're the official mammal of British Columbia. Here's Jenny's description of these extraordinary animals and her experience watching and photographing them:

Because both parents must carry the gene mutation responsible for producing a white bear, white spirit bears can give birth to black cubs, which remain black all of their lives. (photo by Jenny Varley)

By Jenny Varley

Spirit bears are a subspecies of the American black bear. They are found only in the northwest coastal regions of British Columbia, predominantly in the 12,000-square-mile Great Bear Rainforest (see map below), in which they are the iconic species. On some islands in the Great Bear Rainforest, spirit bears may make up 40% of the (non-grizzly) bear population. It is estimated there may only be 300 to 400 such bears, which makes them rarer than giant pandas!

Studies have found that the white bears are more successful than black bears at hunting salmon during the day, when—from a fish-eye view—their coloration makes them less visible against the sky. (photo by Jenny Varley)

Studies have found that the white bears are more successful than black bears at hunting salmon during the day, when—from a fish-eye view—their coloration makes them less visible against the sky. (photo by Jenny Varley)

Spirit bears are not albinos and although their predominant color is white they have varying amounts of ginger in their coats. Their eyes are pigmented and they also often have pigmented snouts. The genetic basis for the white pelage has been identified as a mutation in the gene encoding the receptor for melanocortin 1, a protein involved in the regulation of pigment production in cells called melanocytes. The mutation is recessive, which means that for a spirit bear to be white it must have two copies of the variant gene—one from each parent. This also means that, depending on the genetic make-up of individual bears, a black female may give birth to white offspring, or even one black and one white, and white mothers can give birth to black cubs. 

Interestingly, a variant in the same gene in humans is present in people with red hair and freckles and who tan easily.

The Great Bear Rainforest has been described as one of the world's largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest. In February 2016, after a decade of negotiations, the British Columbia government announced a deal to protect 85% of the rainforest from commercial logging. On March 1, 2016, as part of the compromise, the provincial government assured timber companies that for the next 10 years they would be allowed to harvest 2.5 million cubic meters of wood each year (down from 4 million a decade ago) under "strict, ecosytem-based management rules." 

The Great Bear Rainforest has been described as one of the world's largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest. In February 2016, after a decade of negotiations, the British Columbia government announced a deal to protect 85% of the rainforest from commercial logging. On March 1, 2016, as part of the compromise, the provincial government assured timber companies that for the next 10 years they would be allowed to harvest 2.5 million cubic meters of wood each year (down from 4 million a decade ago) under "strict, ecosytem-based management rules." 

Kermode bears have been known to catch and feast on as many as 80 salmon in one session. Five species of Pacific salmon spawn in the streams of the Great Bear Rainforest. (photo by Jenny Varley)

There are a number of threats to Kermode bears. Hunting and poaching are always a danger (even though hunting white bears is banned in British Columbia, hunting black bears that carry the white gene variation is not). Falling numbers of salmon returning to the area can result in decreased survival, particularly during hibernation. 

The most significant threats are man-made; habitat loss, industry (including the continued logging), and the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat, which could result in more than 200 tankers per year traversing the narrow and pristine waterways of the Great Bear Rainforest. That project suffered a setback in November of 2015, when new Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau imposed a moratorium on tanker traffic along British Columbia's north coast, but the Calgary-based Enbridge energy-delivery corporation says it has not given up on building the pipeline.

A male spirit bear can stand almost six feet tall and weigh 500 pounds; females, such as this one, are notably smaller and usually top out at about 300 pounds. (photo by Jenny Varley)

Many thanks to Jenny for bringing us face-to-face with these rare and remarkable bears! (photo by Jenny Varley)

On our visit to the Great Bear Rainforest, we were lucky enough to spend almost a whole day with a spirit bear and her two black cubs. One cub was very cheeky, being quite boisterous and stealing fish from Mom as she caught them. Our guide was the brilliant Marven Robinson, who, in addition to guiding, has done much to raise awareness of the dangers faced by these wonderful animals.  After a day watching the mom and cubs we saw a second mother walking along the shore.  A truly special day and such a privilege to see.  You can find more images of these bears and other wildlife on my website, www.jennymvarley.co.uk. —Jenny Varley