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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Crude Line in the Land of the Spirit Bear

Air Date: Week of

In the middle of the largest temperate rainforest lives a rare bear. It’s a white black bear, known to natives as spirit bear. The First Nation people who live in Great Bear Rainforest have kept their spirit a secret, until now. The bears' and the natives’ land is threatened by a proposal to pipe crude through their forest. Writer Bruce Barcott wrote about it for National Geographic and describes this unusual place and unusual creature to host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Well, there’s another proposed tar sands pipeline in the Canadian pipeline. It’s called the Northern Gateway, and it would carry Alberta crude 700 miles west to a port on the British Columbia coast, and from there, to China, Japan and perhaps California.

Along the way, the pipeline would cut through the pristine Great Bear Rainforest. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a temperate rainforest. Turns out, it’s a unique home for a unique animal. National Geographic Magazine sent writer Bruce Barcott on assignment to Great Bear – he came back with the story: Pipeline through Paradise.

Two adult males tussle over a prime fishing spot in a river. "Bear scraps are rare events," says Doug Neasloss, a Kitasoo/Xai'xais wildlife guide. "There's a high potential for injury, so they avoid conflict if they can." (©Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

BARCOTT: It is, in fact, the largest existing temperate rainforest in the world up there. It’s a massive swath of enormous trees. I mean, all sorts of firs and cedars- and, well, imagine moss everywhere - it’s like a snowfall of moss. And, it’s a lot of small islands, really a huge archipelago of these islands that are home to wolves and black bears and grizzly bears and a special sub-species of bear known as the spirit bear or the kermode bear. It’s actually a black bear with white fur.

GELLERMAN: You got to see a spirit bear, right?

BARCOTT: I did. I saw three separate spirit bears when I was up there. I had the good fortune to be with a couple of local wilderness guides who knew where the spirit bears generally came down to fish during the day. And, even then, you know, hanging out with the guides - just incredibly misty and spooky and wet and dripping and raining, and you know, you’re wearing all of the Goretex that you own and still this stuff seeps down into your bones.

GELLERMAN: There are some spectacular National Geographic pictures in the article, but you describe the bear as, kind of, a white rug in need of a shampooing.

BARCOTT: Yeah, it’s almost like a vanilla ice cream sort of color when you see it up close - a little bit of orange to it. But one of the things that is most striking when you see it up close is that it is just a bright spotlight against the dark forest.

GELLERMAN: Well, now they want to build, in your words, ‘a pipeline through paradise.’ They want to build this northern gateway, which would cut through the Great Bear Rainforest.

BARCOTT: Right, right. That all ties back to the oil sands out in Alberta- there’s a lot of debate in America about the Keystone XL pipeline. But, at the same time, Canada is working on other ways to tap the Asian oil markets - and one of their ideas is to run a pipeline from Alberta, all the way to the coast that would end at a port right in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.

And the folks there aren’t so much worried about the pipeline, but their concern has to do more with the oil tankers that would be, sort of, winding their way through this jigsaw puzzle of islands at a rate of about 250 a year.

GELLERMAN: And, I guess they’re really large.

BARCOTT: Yeah, some of the largest tankers that would go through that area are about as long as the Empire State building is tall. And, like I say, the main concern for the local people there - which are mainly First Nation folks - is that they do, you know, gain an immense amount of their daily diet from the shores. They go after seaweed, clams, mussel, salmon, and even herring eggs and other sorts of food from that area.

GELLERMAN: But, the unemployment rate in the area is close to 90 percent, you write, aren’t they, you know, hoping that the pipeline brings jobs?

BARCOTT: The 90 percent figure actually is from back in the 90s when the previous battle in the Great Bear Rainforest was over logging and timber. And that was the great debate - was whether we should let the timber companies log the land, and take the jobs that came with that. And, since then, a lot of the First Nations folks up there have found other ways to make a living. But, by and large, the First Nations people on the water and in the Great Bear Rainforest are pretty heavily against the pipeline. They don’t see a whole lot of benefits coming their way.

A young bear settles into a mossy day bed at the foot of a giant, old-growth western red cedar. Bears use such day beds to rest and sleep after a meal. (©Paul Nicklen/National Geographic)

GELLERMAN: What effect will the pipeline, if any, have on the spirit/white bear?

BARCOTT: Essentially, we’re talking about the risk of an Exxon Valdez happening in this area. And, if that were to happen, you know, the white bears can stay out of the water just fine, but their food supply would dry up. You know, they rely pretty heavily on the fall salmon runs coming back. They get a lot of their protein and fat from those salmon, and essentially their ability to bear cubs depends a lot on the amount of fat they can store up from those salmon runs.

GELLERMAN: Have the First Nation peoples developed traditions and mythology around the bear?

BARCOTT: You know, it’s funny - not really. I mean, when you go up there, you don’t see a white bear depicted on, you know, totem poles or carved into cedar in their long houses. But, really, it’s a very, it was kept very quiet. And keeping the spirit bear a secret over the generations has worked well for both them and the spirit bear. But, at this point, you know, I think they’re, kind of, at least as interested in publicizing the spirit bear’s existence, if only as a way to help protect the land and the water that both they and the spirit bear rely upon.

GELLERMAN: Well, Bruce, thanks so very much. It’s a terrific article, and I’m very appreciative that you took the time to talk with us.

BARCOTT: No problem, thank you.

GELLERMAN: Bruce Barcott wrote ‘Pipeline through Paradise and Spirit Bear’ in the August issue of National Geographic. For pictures of the white-black bear, visit us at loe.org.



See more photos of the Spirit Bear by Paul Nicklen.


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