The rare, white-furred Kermode bear lives only on British Columbia’s north coast and islands. For 150 years, logging companies have felled the region’s colossal cedars and spruce for an international market, pillaging the bear’s habitat. But last February, First Nations communities, environmentalists, the forest industry and governments agreed to a remarkable conservancy.

The stuff of legend

“A mystical or religious experience” is how Wayne McCrory describes his first sighting, 30 years ago, of a Kermode bear, also known as the “spirit bear.” Since then, the Valhalla Wilderness Society bear biologist has fought to protect the uncommon creatures (all Kermodes are actually black bears with a recessive gene that makes them white). For McCrory, the Kermode bear symbolizes the wilderness and humanity’s duty to protect it. According to a legend of the local Kitasoo First Nation, Raven the Creator made every 10th black bear white as a reminder of the last ice age. In 2006, the province of British Columbia adopted the spirit bear as its official mammal.

The Great Bear Rainforest

The conservancy agreement covers an area larger than Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island combined, distributed over a terrain of deep inlets and rocky coastal islands. British Columbia’s “War in the Woods,” which culminated in the 1993 protests in Clayoquot Sound, drew global attention to this region. In 2006, the first Great Bear Rainforest agreement was signed. It protected about one third of the forest, required much stricter regulations on logging and promised to involve First Nations in decision making. Now, 85 percent of old growth is protected from logging, and the remaining 15 percent has its own strict forest management act.

A tenuous balance

TimberWest is one of the forestry companies still actively logging in the Great Bear Rainforest; it holds tenure to about two percent of the land in the southern part. None of it is old-growth forest. Rather, it’s a young second- and third-growth area, which produces enough wood to build 20,000 homes a year. McCrory, however, argues that even the recent agreement fails to adequately protect the Kermode bear’s habitat. Streams, for example, are still vulnerable. In addition, the proposed and contentious Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines may deliver bitumen from Alberta onto tankers out of Kitimat, B.C. —  right through the heart of the spirit bear’s home.  

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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