Ghostly guardians in the wilderness : First Nations people in British Columbia led study of Spirit bears.

Douglass Neasloss was skeptical that Spirit bears existed. A member of the Kitsoo/Xai'xaias First Nation in Canada, he had heard the stories of white-furred bears that roamed British Columbia's rainforest.

But Mr. Neasloss, a former tour leader and cultural interpreter, had never seen one until 2005, when he experienced ''one of the most magical moments'' of his guiding career.

During a hike, he caught sight of a cinnamon tinged white-bear as it walked ahead of him, then lay down 50 feet away to munch on a freshly caught salmon.

After his first Spear bear encounter, Mr. Neasloss asked community elders why these bears weren't widely discussed.

During the fur trade of the 1800s, he learned, the existence of the ghostly bears were kept secret to keep them safe. Today, they are the official mammal of British Columbia and known also as Kermode bear.

''Albinism affects all pigment cells in the whole body,'' while Spirit bears typically have black feet and slightly orange fur, said Kermit Ritland, a geneticist at the University of British Columbia.

In 2001, he and collaborators identified the gene responsible for the Spirit Bear's white coat. It's the same genetic quirk that causes red hair in humans, and auburn fur in dogs and mice.

Spirit bears can be born to parents that may or may not have white fur themselves.

For example, a mama and papa black bear each carrying one copy of the recessive gene can produce a white-furred baby.

The researchers mapped the bear genetics using hair from 385 bears snagged at over a hundred evenly spaced high and low-elevation sites on First Nations territories, during May and June from 2012 to 2017.

They found that in some places previously known as to be hot spots for Spirit bears, the frequency of the gene variant that causes the snowy coats was half as common as previous studies estimated.

They could not say whether the findings reflects changes over time, versus different sampling designs.

But it is clear that from the new data that the Spirit bear gene variant, while rare, is more widely distributed across the landscape than previously documented.

And, by overlaying the geography of the gene's occurrence with protected areas, the researchers found that many Spirit bear hot spots are not yet adequately protected from habitat loss from logging. Current protected areas have ''missed the mark,'' Mr. Neasloss said.

In Kitasoo/Xai'xais culture, bears are considered closely related to humans.

Bears and human diets of berries, plants and fish are very similar. In his culture's stories, Mr. Neasloss said, the bears ''taught us how to survive off the land.''

Now the bears' hairy, high-teach teachings suggest that a thriving ecotourism economy requires the survival of more intact land for bears.

The World Students Society thanks author Lesley Evans Ogden.


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