The Boss of Gribbell Island

This fall I met the Boss of Gribbell Island. He appeared almost ghost-like out of the rising morning mist up stream from our viewing platform above the Ryordan River. Downstream, a black bear looked up from feeding on a salmon carcass and nervously moved off into the surrounding forest with several backward glances.

Spirit Bear Appears
Spirit bear appears

To our immense excitement, the Boss slowly sauntered down the stream towards us. His fur coat dazzled our eyes and left us nearly breathless with it’s golden halo cast by the late morning sun. It clearly knew we were there, perched a few metres above him, yet it displayed almost complete disinterest in us. Instead, it focused intently on the catching and eating late spawning Pink salmon.

Spirit Bear chasing salmon
Spirit Bear chasing salmon

Despite the honey-blond colour, the Boss is really a black bear (Ursus americanus). The light colouring results from a particular recessive gene being passed to an offspring from both parents. Because of this genetic quirk, the white bear as well as its black bear kindred are considered a unique subspecies (Ursus americanus kermodei ). Among the local First Nations, they known as “Moksgm’ol” meaning ghost or spirit bears.

No matter what name we give it, the spirit bear is the rarest of all bears. No one knows for sure just how many black bears carry this recessive gene. What is more closely known is the number found on the 200 sq. km. At least 35 bears are found on the 200 sq. km. Gribbell Island, of these 7 are spirit bears. There could be as much as twice that number on neighbouring Princess Royal Island which is ten times larger.

In the past, commercial logging weighed in as the biggest threat to the survival of these magnificent animals. Streams frequently fell victim to irresponsible harvesting practices that rendered them impossible for returning salmon to spawn in. With no returning salmon, bears go hungry. If this state persists too long, the general health and robustness of the population declines. Birth rates fall while death rates climb.

Logging is still permitted on Gribbell Island even though much of it has already been logged. In fact, the trail to the viewing platform follows an old logging road. The surrounding forest consists mostly of dense stands of young alders and western hemlock trees. This area was clear-cut not so long ago.

Young forest in morning mist
Young forest in morning mist

For the time being, the bears are safe from any further impact from logging. The island has been designated a stewardship area and placed under the management of the local Gitga’at First Nation. The designation makes it possible for the First Nation to permit greater logging, mining and hydro-electric development. Fortunately, for the time being, there appears to be little interest in doing so.

The potential of an oil spill has also been removed with the cancellation of the Northern Gateway project. Had it been approved, the decision would’ve resulted in heavy tanker traffic laden with diluted bitumen, a thick gooey slurry that sinks rather than floats. It’s next to impossible to clean up. Inbound ships would be carrying condensate, a nasty brew of solvents used to make bitumen easier to pump through pipelines. A spill of either hazardous material would’ve been devastating to marine and foreshore ecology.

Grizzly bears also pose a threat to black bears and the spirit bears. Their range has been expanding over the past decade. Females with cubs have been spotted on several coastal islands including Princess Royal. This suggests the possibility of a breeding population of grizzly bears becoming established on these islands. Grizzlies are known to out-compete their smaller cousins.

Female grizzly with cubs on Princess Royal Island
Female grizzly with cubs on Princess Royal Island

Today, though, the biggest threat unquestionably has to be climate change. As the ocean continues to warm, cold-water fish like salmon suffer. More at-sea mortality, fewer returning to spawn, fewer eggs laid… you get the picture.

Spirit Bear with salmon in mouth
Spirit Bear with salmon in mouth

After putting on quite a show for over two hours, The Boss finally wandered back upstream from where he had come and disappeared back into the forest. On the viewing platform, a collective gasp rippled through our group over what we had just experienced together. I suspect, and I take hope, that our guests were profoundly moved by it and would do all they could to reduce their carbon footprint and to advocate for the protection of the spirit bear and its coastal habitat.

Spirit Bear close-Up
Spirit Bear close-up

Ethics of Wildlife Photography

Over the past decade, I’ve steadily become more and more concerned about the impacts of photography on wildlife. I’m seeing and hearing of too many instances where people are getting far too close to wild animals to get an epic shot with their cell phones or point-and-shoot cameras. Such behaviour can trigger a defensive response that ends up with someone getting hurt (or worse) and the animal put down. The advent of high-resolution digital cameras coupled with powerful lenses and sophisticated editing software are partly to blame for encouraging this behaviour.  They makes it very easy to create the illusion of an extreme close-up when, in fact, the animal was quite some distance away.

Among my photos, you’ll see lots of images of wildlife. In a few instances, the animals approached very close because they were habituated to people and in one instance, likely food-conditioned as well. Definitely not a good situation. When a wild animal becomes too at ease with humans and begins to see them either as a source for food or as food, trouble is sure to follow. In many cases, though, I cropped some of my wildlife photos to compensate for the relatively short length of my lens. Currently I shoot with a Canon 60D coupled with a 24 – 200mm lens.

Because I’m concerned about unintentionally encouraging copy-cat photographers who attempt to get similar shots with their cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras, I will explain the circumstances surrounding the photo and I’ll state whether the image has been cropped. In doing this, I’m following the lead set by a friend who is also an avid wildlife photographer and who has the same concerns as I. It would be wonderful to see this simple action spread among wildlife photographers.

Coastal wolf standing on log
Coastal wolf standing on log

Although we were on a remote island off the Central Coast, this wolf exhibited all the signs of being habituated and likely food conditioned. It showed no signs of fear towards us. But nor did it act aggressively. However, it did trot towards us at one point and approached within 10 – 15m. It likely has come to associate people with a food reward. There is some reason to believe that the wolves on the island are being fed by passing recreational and commercial anglers who purposely leave fish guts on the beach to attract them. But this is a terribly irresponsible behaviour, endangering the lives of these magnificent wild animals and anyone who camps on the islands, such as kayakers. There’s already been one serious mauling on the West Coast of two kayakers by habituated and food-conditioned wolves.

I’ve only cropped the image slightly to remove some of the logs in the foreground.

Spirit bear walks a log
Spirit bear walks a log

Our group had been patiently waiting all morning, hoping a spirit bear would show up at the stream to feed on the spawning Pink salmon. Just as the sun came around the mountain and its penetrating warmth drew rising steam from the surrounding forest, one appeared almost ghost-like upstream from us. Then, to our intense delight, it began to work the stream towards us. Eventually, it ended up spending more than an hour hunting and feeding on salmon in front or near us.  Well within 15 – 20m much of the time.

No doubt that it was a highly habituated animal. It showed no concern about our presence and stayed very focused on its hunting and eating. It certainly knew we were there, perched on the viewing platform about 3 – 4ms above the stream.

The local First Nation has named this bear “The Boss”. Not only is he large, but he is also dominant over all the other black bears in the area.

No cropping was necessary.

Black bear strolls along streamside
Black bear strolls along streamside

This black bear showed up in front of our viewing platform shortly after “The Boss” had left.

Same circumstances surrounding the taking of the photo. No cropping.

The habituation and food-conditioning of wild animals, I think, should be a strategic issue for the tourism industry in BC.