The Kermode Bear or "Spirit Bear"
The spirit bear is a unique subspecies of the North American black bear in which approximately one in every 10 bears is white or cream-colored. Some have orange or yellow coloration on their backs. Other Kermodes are all black. The scientific name is Ursus americanus kermodei, named after a naturalist and museum curator named Frances Kermode of the British Columbia Provincial Museum. The term "Spirit Bear" is possibly attributed to First Nations tradition, which held that the white bears were to be revered and protected. Today the Tsimshian people call it "moskgm'ol," which simply means "white bear."
Kermode bears may have evolved on the coast in the last 10,000 years from black bear stock that became isolated from interior black bears more than 300,000 years ago.
The white color may be due to inheritance of a single gene for hair color, but other more complex mechanisms may be involved. Further genetic research is needed.
Where Spirit Bears Live
The spirit bear is a unique creature. It lives only on the Pacific coast of British Columbia, in Canada. The spirit bear is what scientists call an "umbrella species," that is, if a large enough suitable habitat can be protected for the spirit bear, many other species sharing the same ecosystem will also be protected under this umbrella; for example, salmon, birds, wolves, deer, grizzly bears, insects and many others. Rarely, a white bear is reported from other black bear populations elsewhere in North America but these are from different subspecies.
Much of the spirit bear's historic territory is already logged, from River's Inlet at the south end of its range, to the Nass Valley in the north, and east up the Skeena River as far as Hazelton. On the mid-coast, large areas of the islands where the Kermode bears live – Princess Royal, Gribbell, Roderick and Pooley – have already been logged. The spirit bear's traditional home is already much diminished. The logging industry has extracted substantial commercial value from the range of the spirit bear even as the provincial government planning process was proceeding!
How Do Spirit Bears Survive in the Rainforest?
Spirit bears thrive in their lush rainforest home on a diet of green plants, berries and salmon. In the winter, they hibernate in dry cavities inside giant old trees, protected from howling winter storms. The hibernating bear slowly digests its stored body fat. One amazing thing about spirit bears (and grizzly bears) is that their young are often born in the middle of winter, while the mother bear is still in hibernation. The tiny bear cubs, born blind and defenseless, stay in the den until spring, when the mother wakes and takes them on their first foray into the larger world of the rainforest.
Video: A seven minute film documenting the rare white Spirit Bear of BC's Great Bear Rainforest. The Kitasoo Xai'xais First Nation in partnership with environmental groups and the BC Government created the world's only Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy.
VIDEOS: "In Search of the Spirit Bear"