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
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