Protecting Spirit Bears and Their Relations

Kitasoo Xai’xais and Gitga’at First Nations have successfully banned black bear hunting in critical areas

Odette Auger

Spirit bear cub with their mother. Photo by Chief Doug Neasloss

Kitasoo Xai’xais and Gitga’at First Nations have successfully banned black bear hunting in the parts of their territories most critical to the beautiful Moksgm’ol (Spirit Bears). Klemtu and Hartley Bay have the highest concentration of Muq’vas Glaw, (white bears). They are not albino, and are not unique species or subspecies – they are black bears with a recessive gene that gives them a white coat. Two black bears carrying the gene will produce white cubs.

Spirit bears are culturally and economically important to the community. Tourism generates diverse streams of revenue in a geographically remote location. “Our people have always had a healthy respect for them here, and understand the rarity of the bears.” They’re integrated all throughout the community – whether it’s song, dance, stories, or teachings.

Chief Neasloss recalls the first time he saw a spirit bear. He was 17, having returned to Klemtu. He was asked to go out and look for a spirit bear. He was skeptical – he hadn’t heard of them, living away from home territories. He thought they were pulling his leg. He went for a walk in the woods. “I didn’t see anything. And I just remember thinking that they were joking. And then, all of a sudden a spirit bear comes out right in front of me, with the salmon in his mouth. And he just lays down in front of me and starts eating his salmon and the sun burst out. That experience led to him spending seven or eight hours a day with the bears… for 20 years. This passion for the bears led to Elders giving him his brother’s name Muq’vas Glaw, (white bear) to carry on after his brother passed.

Spirit bears have been protected from hunting since the 1950s, but black bears continued to be hunted, putting the spirit bear gene at risk.

Youth trained as community scientists. Photo provided by Chief Douglas Neasloss.

While some of the hunters were hunting for food, that was the minority. Eighty-five per cent of the hunters were American trophy hunters who came up to kill black bears in Klemtu territory, along with overseas trophy hunters, says Chief Neasloss. Unlike grizzly trophy hunting, they aren’t required to report black bear kills, so it’s hard to know how many bears are being hunted per year.

The BC Wildlife Federation says the number of licensed hunters in BC has increased more than 20% in recent years – from 85,633 hunters in 2005 to 107,073 in 2020. According to provincial government data, the number of black bear licenses sold over the past 15 years has increased more than 2.5 times – from 14,362 to 36,744.

The biggest challenge in the process for Chief Neasloss was the sheer amount of time it took. “I thought this would’ve been an open-and-close case – because we know how unique and special spirit bears are.”

Ten years in the making, the ban proposal was the work of Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority (KXSA) and the Gitga’at Ocean and Lands Department (GOLD). In 2012, Coastal First Nations issued a ban on trophy hunting in general. The biggest challenge in the process for Chief Neasloss was the sheer amount of time it took. “I thought this would’ve been an open-and-close case – because we know how unique and special spirit bears are,” he shares.

“I think a big part of the lag time was lack of science,” Neasloss explains. “We helped drive a lot of the science, by partnering up to collect the data.” The collaborative research gave them the evidence required to prove that one in ten bears had the white gene. “I would say this is the perfect example of science catching up.”

Dr. Christina Service has been a key helping hand in the proposal, and is continuing to train community youth in monitoring and field work. One example is setting up hair traps along bear paths – analyzing hair samples was key in knowing how many black bears carry the recessive gene. The hair samples are unique to individual bears, like a fingerprint, says Service. Information can help understand and support their bears, by giving insight into diet the previous year, and distinguishing populations.

Service hopes the policy will play a part in the continued stewardship of these culturally important animals. More broadly, “I hope that the closure can act as a great example of Indigenous-led, evidence-based wildlife management policy that can be drawn on in other wildlife management contexts.”

“Our wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of bears. Now, all three species of bears are protected– spirits, grizzlies, and black bears.”

Dr. Christina Service sampling spirit bear hair. Photo by Rosie Child, provided by Chief Neasloss.

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