There is nothing like the Great Bear Rainforest in the east but it should be treasured by all Canadians. The forest is a temperate rainforest – one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world. About 25,000 square miles, larger than Switzerland by half, of misty, rainy hemlock, western red cedar and yew. This is home to grizzlies, black bears, wolverines, grey wolves, humpback whales and orcas. But it also is home to the “spirit” bear or “Kermode” bear a very special treasure that occurs nowhere else on earth.
The spirit bear is a white black bear. White because it inherits two recessive mutant genes from its parents. It is not an albino. These special bears occur mainly on Princess Royal Island and on the smaller island to its north – Gribbell Island. (Look between Kitimat and Bella Bella.) On Princess Royal, about one in ten black bears is a white spirit bear. On Gribbell, about one in three is white. Two black bears, each with a recessive gene can produce a white spirit bear.
Both black and spirit bears (along with grizzlies) feed heavily on spawning and spawned-out salmon. Spirit bears are more successful in catching salmon than are their black cousins, an advantage that may help explain their persistence in the population. Both bears seize salmon in the water and carry them up on shore, often well into the forest. The bears often eat only the brains or the eggs from the salmon they catch. The rest of salmon is left in the forest and research that tracks isotopes of nitrogen that occur only in the sea, has shown that nitrogen from the salmon, with the help of the bears, is incorporated into the trees of the forest. The Great Bear Rainforest is fertilized from the ocean by the salmon and the bears.
By 2009, British Columbia had protected one-third of the Great Bear Rainforest from logging and put the rest of it under ecosystem-based management plans. Conservancies in those areas allow traditional uses but not logging or development. First Nations workers provide monitoring and stewardship.
Now, a dual pipeline is proposed to connect Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat. Thick crude would be delivered to tankers that could hold 2.15 million barrels of crude and would be up to 1116 feet long. The pipeline would also take “condensate”, the mixture used to thin the bitumen enough to flow, back to the tar sands. The economic objective is Asian markets, including China’s state-owned Sinopec oil company.
The giant tankers would have to thread a narrow, jigsaw-like passage past Gribbell and Princess Royal Islands to get to the open ocean north of Haida Gwai. The tankers would be sliding past the sunken hulk of the Queen of the North in Hartley Bay where the BC passenger ferry sank in 2006 and is still releasing diesel fuel.
Canada proposes to bid for the international Asian petroleum market with this Northern Gateway pipeline and this risky tanker passageway. As currently proposed by Enbridge, this pipeline will put the National treasure of the Great Bear Rainforest at risk. As Canadians, we should all get informed about this pipeline and tanker proposal and think about our irreplaceable National treasure to be put at risk.