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One in ten black bears carry a recessive gene that gives their cubs white fur. (Doug Neasloss for The Globe and Mail)
One in ten black bears carry a recessive gene that gives their cubs white fur. (Doug Neasloss for The Globe and Mail)


Impending spring hunt imperils iconic spirit bear Add to ...

When a huge, glowing figure representing a spirit bear rose from the floor during the Olympic opening ceremonies, Doug Neasloss watched with a mix of emotions.

Mr. Neasloss, a bear viewing guide, was thrilled to see the iconic white bears of British Columbia's central coast getting such reverential treatment. But at the same time, he knew that in a few weeks B.C.'s spring bear hunt would be under way, putting at risk the animal that gave rise to one of the enduring images of the Games and inspired the creation of the Olympic mascot, Miga.

"I'm shocked that this still happens," Mr. Neasloss said of the bear hunt. "I'm very sad. I can't believe this hunt exists."

Spirit or Kermode bears are a white-coated genetic variation of black bears. Their population is concentrated in an area known as the Great Bear Rainforest, on the central coast north of Vancouver Island. Hunting is restricted in only about 2 per cent of that range.

Mr. Neasloss said that although the official population estimate is 400 white bears on B.C.'s coast, he and others who spend several months a year watching the bears think there are far fewer.

"I am out all the time on the salmon streams and along the beaches. I would say, at a stretch, there are no more than 200," he said. "There are fewer spirit bears in the world than there are pandas [which number about 1,600] And would anybody sanction a trophy hunt for pandas?"

Mr. Neasloss said hunters can't legally shoot the rare white bears, but they can kill black bears that have black coats. About one in 10 of the black bears in the area carry a recessive gene that gives their cubs white fur.

"Whenever a hunter shoots a black bear in the Great Bear Rainforest, he is potentially killing a future spirit bear," said Mr. Neasloss, who guides for Spirit Bear Adventures, in the remote village of Klemtu on Princess Royal Island.

Mr. Neasloss is in Vancouver this week promoting ecotourism and lobbying for an end to the black and grizzly bear hunts while international media are in the city for the Olympics.

"I've been guiding now for 10 years and have taken thousands of people out to see these bears. About 80 per cent of my clients come from Europe, 15 per cent are from the U.S. and only 5 per cent come from Canada. That's part of the problem," he said, suggesting few Canadians appreciate how rare the bears are.

Mr. Neasloss said the Kitasoo Xaixais creation story says the bears have supernatural powers and were put on Earth as a reminder of the Ice Age.

He said shooting bears is easy in the Great Bear Rainforest. One bear he observed over several years, and which had become used to humans, was killed last year by hunters.

"We were coming back from bear viewing and we passed this boat with guys dressed in camouflage gear," he said. "They went to the river where we'd just spent hours sitting in the forest watching this bear feed. And the next day we came back to find the bear had been shot."

This week, a collection of environmental groups - from Canada, Sweden, Croatia, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Spain and the U.S. - bought full-page ads in local Vancouver newspapers decrying the bear hunt. "There is one sport that British Columbia does not want the world to know about," states the ad copy, over a picture of a grizzly bear with a bull's eye on its shoulder.

The grizzly bear hunt is controversial because of declining bear populations, thought to be linked to poor salmon runs. A coastal grizzly bear study is to resume this spring after the bears emerge from hibernation.

A spokesman for B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner said he was not available to answer questions on the issue.

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