Fight Over Pipeline Goes To The Bears

A battle rages in British Columbia over pristine rainforest sacred to several First Nations tribes. Traditional customs and lands put members of these native groups in conflict with oil interests and big money. The Great Bear Rainforest may face danger due to environmental contamination from a proposed pipeline and hundreds of oil tankers going through the area. The Kermode bear, a rare white bear, serves as the focal point for First Nations tribes banding together to fight the oil industry.

Sacred Traditions

Via Maximilian Helm
Via Maximilian Helm

The Kermode bear, known as the Spirit Bear to First Nations tribes, remains sacred to the way of life in an area of western British Columbia near the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Similar in scope to the white buffalo traditions of the Great Plains of the United States, Spirit Bears bring good luck and power to those who see one, according to Smithsonian Magazine. However, the Kermode bear means much more to the Great Bear Rainforest than just good luck. An entire ecosystem depends on the bears’ survival.

Oil Pipeline

Via Dogwood Initiative
Via Dogwood Initiative

Back in 2011, the British Columbian government proposed an oil pipeline to run to Kitimat, a port city just east of the Great Bear Rainforest. Oil tankers would need to navigate the treacherous Douglas Channel, a rocky, 100-mile waterway filled with tight turns. An oil spill in this type of pristine land would be catastrophic to wildlife. Petroleum muck on the water would kill salmon, and these fish serve as the main food source for the Kermode bear and wolves that live in the rainforest. Bears use coastal areas to travel, and any oil or sludge that washes ashore would contaminate the creatures’ fur. Whales that travel up these channels would also suffer.

First Nations tribes don’t want the pipeline because large ships would come in to transport the oil. A ferry accident that killed two people in 2006 sent tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel to the bottom of Grenville Channel after the helmsman failed to navigate a sharp turn in time, notes National Geographic. Oil tankers going through the same channel would be much bigger and pose even greater problems.

If the oil pipeline moves forward, as many as 220 tankers would go through these narrow channels every year. Locals remember that despite engineering safeguards, human error comes into play. They fear that an accident that would ruin the environment would happen eventually, as underscored by the narrow tugboat rescue of a Russian oil tanker that lost power and nearly ran aground just west of the area in 2015, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Why the Spirit Bear?

Via Maximilian Helm
Via Maximilian Helm

The Spirit Bear represents a rarity among large mammals. This subspecies of black bear actually appears white due to genetic mutations within a certain group of ursine animals. Around 12,000 years ago, the Kermode bears became cut off from other black bears on several islands that house the Great Bear Rainforest. The genetic mutation continued in isolation, creating a larger population of all-white bears. Approximately 1,300 Spirit Bears remain in the wild, states the Ian Somerhalder Foundation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, local First Nations groups successfully halted logging operations by calling attention to this incredible bear and the pristine habitat of the Great Bear Rainforest. The Canadian government banned hunting, logging, and mining on 4.4 million acres of Great Bear Rainforest, part of which includes Kermode bear habitat. The government has not decided what to do about the other 10 million acres, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

A Matter of Economics

Via Ronnie Macdonald
Via Ronnie Macdonald

The plight of the Spirit Bear highlights the economic pressures on this region of Canada, which saw high unemployment and poverty in the 1990s. Back then, logging companies paid locals good wages to work on logging crews, leaving large swaths of clear-cut forest in their wake. In 2015, Enbridge approached the region with its plan to build a $5.8 billion pipeline.

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Looking to long-term sustainability instead of short-term construction jobs, locals have turned the area into an ecotourism hot spot. Using land-grant money to build lodges that harbor ecotours, they send boaters and hikers in and around several islands to watch for wildlife and take pictures. On rare occasions, ecotourists may spot a Spirit Bear mother and her cub.

The fate of the Kermode bear could still go either way. Locals have shown they can bank on the Spirit Bear while remaining respectful of the land they hold sacred. Meanwhile, a thirst for more oil reserves and a multi-billion-dollar bankroll drive other groups who want to exploit the region’s natural resources. Hopefully, the Spirit Bears will get to live in peace.

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