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Conservationists seek refuge for elusive spirit bears

spirit bear
The kermode, or spirit bear
More images of the spirit bear
April 24, 1998
Web posted at: 11:17 p.m. EDT (0317 GMT)

From Correspondent Bruce Burkhardt

PRINCESS ROYAL ISLAND, British Columbia (CNN) -- Some 350 miles north of Vancouver, wild animals roam through a lush, temperate coastal rain forest filled with thousand-year-old Sitka spruce trees. Eagles vie for a meal of native salmon with black and grizzly bears -- and the legendary creature known as the spirit bear.

But conservationists are worried that the rare spirit bear's habitat will soon disappear. Within weeks, the sounds of chain saws are due to start echoing through the remote wilderness.

Wayne McCrory is with the Valhalla Wilderness Society, a group fighting an uphill battle to protect the area against logging companies.

vxtreme Correspondent Bruce Burkhardt introduces us to the spirit bear
See the beautiful spirit bear
video icon 2M/36 sec./160x120
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"They're logging ancient forests here, so people need to know that when they buy lumber from British Columbia, they may be buying a tree that was a den for a kermode bear, that was cut down in February when the mother had her young, and the young are cut out of their den in the middle of winter," he said.

The kermode bear, the official name for the white-coated spirit bear, is a subspecies of the North American black bear. It results from a double-recessive gene more common among the bears in this region. Even here, only 1 in 10 bears turns out white.

Almost as rare as the bear itself is the number of people who have actually seen it. McCrory is one of the few who knows how to find it.

"No matter how many I see, it's to me like the spiritual essence of the rain forest. I just can't describe it, it's so beautiful," he said. "You sit by the salmon stream and a white bear suddenly shows up out of the rain forest, walks along, just disappears, swallowed up by the rain forest again. It's just unbelievable."

bear along waterfront

To insure the spirit bear's survival, as well as that of everything that this unique ecosystem supports, environmentalists have proposed a spirit bear sanctuary. The proposal sets aside 600,000 acres, including Princess Royal Island, other neighboring islands, and part of the mainland, which would be off-limits to logging.

"We need a lot of support outside the country," McCrory said, "because our government has basically sold out to the logging companies."

So far, the government of British Columbia has given serious consideration only to another, more modest area.

In the meantime, the chain saws are set to fire up this spring, felling their first trees only 8 miles from the area the unusual bear calls home.


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