Sighting a 'spirit' bear

Scientists say unusual bruin most likely a type of black bear

Posted: Monday, August 19, 2002

When a white bear crossed the path of Juneau photographer Pat Costello on Friday, he understood why the Canadians named such bears after spirits and ghosts.

"I enjoy all bears. It's great to see them. But this thing?" said Costello, who runs the Web site that highlights bear-human interactions. "They call these things spirit bears and ghost bears, probably alluding to some spiritual kind of things in general, and I sure felt something. It's a really neat animal, and it's a real privilege and a treat to actually see it."

It's a privilege he hopes more Juneau residents will be able to experience. Costello didn't want to reveal where he'd seen the bear, for fear an eager trophy hunter would hunt the animal down.

"It's for the enjoyment of everybody," Costello said. "Those folks that are privileged to see it and those who just think about it and know that it's wandering around. I think there's a greater value to it than one person putting it up on their wall."

Matt Robus, deputy director of the state Department of Fish and Game's Wildlife Conservation Division, said protection for the bear is unlikely.

"We manage wildlife by populations, not by individual animals," Robus said. "We'd have a hard time even figuring out how to do it. Because of the number of staff we have, managing populations is hard enough. If we start managing by individuals, it could get out of hand very quickly."

Bear-hunting season runs Sept. 1 to June 30, said Neil Barten, area wildlife management biologist for Fish and Game in Douglas. Some protections are in place for big game animals, he added, including a city regulation that forbids the discharge of firearms within a quarter-mile of a public street, road, highway or the Eaglecrest ski lifts.

A small number of white bears, called Kermode bears, live in coastal British Columbia. A subspecies of the black bear, these animals derive their unusual white coloring from a recessive gene in each of the parent bears. Unlike gray glacier bears, which also are occasionally seen in Juneau, the Kermode bears are clearly white.

The coloring of the bear spotted by Costello does not automatically mean it's a Kermode bear, cautioned Barten.

"I would think it's just a very light color phase, kind of like a glacier bear, just a little lighter," Barten said. "The neat thing about Juneau is you can go up on any hill you want ... and you're almost certainly going to see several different colors of black bears."

On the same day Costello photographed the white bear, Barten said, Fish and Game removed a grizzly bear from a yard on Fritz Cove Road. The 3-year-old, 230-pound female was taken "far to the south of town," Barten said.

"It hadn't really been doing much of anything wrong," he said. "It was just around. Hopefully it will start a new life and behave itself. If it does come back, we will kill it, though."

Barten also declined to reveal the location where the white bear was spotted. Costello said it appeared to be young and small, weighing in at what he estimated as 140 to 160 pounds.

"Odds are this bear would be shot only for its hide, and aside from the fact that it's white, it's not a trophy animal," Costello said. "If you want a big black bear hide, you can get a big old 400-pound black bear. This is a 140-pound animal. This would be a very small hide."

However, Costello said, he knows the bear quickly may become a target.

"I'd already heard that some of the folks who know where this was were kind of licking their chops to go out and shoot it," Costello said. "I'm on pins and needles over this. ... I see it coming. I just want people to jump out in front of this (white) bear and do the right thing because it's very special, very unique."

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at

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