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Coastal First Nations hope black bear hunting ban revives Spirit bear populations

Black bears can carry the recessive Spirit bear gene
Coastal First Nations welcome new hunting regulations that will help protect spirit bear populations. (Photo: Doug Neasloss)

A ban on black bear hunting in parts of the Great Bear Rainforest has the Kitasoo Xai’xais, and Gitga’at Nations hopeful a revitalization of the species will develop, a July 19 announcement stated.

The Ministry of Forests announced a year-round black bear hunting closure from July 1, 2022, to June 20, 2024, in 8,158 square kilometres of Great Bear Rainforest between Prince Rupert and Bella Coola.

Black bears are culturally significant, and the species includes Kermode bears or Spirit bears.

In the Gitga’at language they are known as Moksgm’ol and hold traditional and economic significance to the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Gitga’at First Nations.

Spirit bears are black bears with a rare genetic mutation that turns their coat white. Around one in ten black bears have distinct white fur in these two Nations’ territories, which has the highest global prevalence of the animal.

In the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Gitga’at territories, it was previously believed there were as many as 400 Spirit bears, Christina Service, a wildlife biologist with the Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority stated. However, current research, which is still in progress, shows the number might be an overestimate. Research shows the gene that gives rise to the unusual white coat is 50 per cent rarer than was first assumed.

While it is illegal in B.C. to hunt Spirit bears, the stewardship groups from the Nations were calling for a ban on black bear hunting within portions of their territories. The premise behind this is black bears can be carrying the Spirit bear DNA, which cannot be identified just by looking at the bear.

Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority and the Gitga’at Ocean and Lands Development submitted a proposal to the provincial government before the new hunting regulations were announced.

“Every time you shoot a black bear in this region, it could be carrying the recessive copy of the gene that produces the Spirit bear,” Doug Neasloss, chief councillor of the Kitasoo Xai’xais First Nation said.

“This hunting closure is a monumental occasion and a big step towards protecting these spirit bears that are so important culturally and economically to the region.”

Spirit bears are featured in First Nations’ stories, songs and dances. They are also an important economic asset to remote communities through tourism.

Each Nation has its own eco-tourism operator in the Great Bear Rainforest bringing visitors to see the unusual white-coat black bears. The Nations receive far more revenue from bear sightings than bear hunting in the area, stated the Kitasoo Xai’xais Stewardship Authority.

“We see the hunting ban as an encouraging example of government-to-government collaboration and look forward to continuing to work with the Fish and Wildlife Branch on other regulation changes in the future,” Neasloss said.

READ MORE: Kitasoo Xai’xais Nation creates their own Marine Protected Area in Great Bear Rainforest

 Kaitlyn Bailey | Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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The Ministry of Forests closed black bear hunting in portions of the management areas 6-3 and 6-11, as shown by the red line. Kitasoo Xai’xais and Gitga’at Nations hope the closures will support spirit bear populations. (Photo: supplied)