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Masala and the Rainforest

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November 29, 2005

Masala and the Rainforest

Future of Kermode bear and rainforest "uncertain"

by Kim Petersen

kermode21_web.jpg
The Kermode bear's distinctive white coloring appears in roughly 30 per cent of the bears in the Spirit Bear Rainforest. photo: ronthiele.com
The spectacular northwest coast of colonially designated British Columbia contains one of the world's great temperate rainforests. Here, the open Pacific Ocean and meandering fjords lap at the shore of the ancient rainforest where millennia-old cedar trees and towering Sitka spruce grow amid the glaciated Coastal Mountain chain. The rich ecosystem is intersected by streams that host salmon, upon which apex predators such as killer whales, black bears, grizzlies, wolves, and eagles feed. The salmon are also a nutritional mainstay for First Nations people.

The region is named the Spirit Bear Rainforest because it is home to masala, a rare white-colored bear also referred to as the spirit bear or Kermode bear. Masala -- the original designation from Sm'algyax (the Tsimshian language) -- is a genetic variation of the black bear whose distinctive coloration is the result of a single recessive gene expressed phenotypically in as many as one in ten of these bears.

Biologists estimate a population of 1,200 black and white spirit bears -- 400 of the white coloration. The spirit bear lives in greatest numbers on the islands in the territory of the Gitga'at (people of the cane) First Nation: Gribbell Island (up to 30 percent are white) and Princess Royal Island (up to 10 percent are white).

This ursine rainforest denizen and other forest-dwelling wildlife have been threatened by clearcut logging practices. According to the BC environmentalist organization Valhalla Wilderness Society, the long-term prospect for masala's survival is "Uncertain, at best." Particularly disconcerting is the felling of old-growth trees whose hollowed-out trunks provide winter dens for bears on the BC coast.

Logging and road-building also mean the loss of critical food sources and protective cover from poachers. Denudation of the rain-soaked mountain slopes causes landslides and erosion. Salmon habitat will be smothered, killing the salmon and decimating an important food source of masala.

A 1996 investigation by the Sierra Legal Defense Fund revealed that clearcutting accounted for a startling 97 per cent of logging in the temperate rainforest. Pressure from First Nations, environmental organizations, and public concern led the BC provincial government, in April 2001, to announce a "Spirit Bear Protection Area" of approximately 135,000 hectares.

However, this sanctuary remains unprotected until the BC government passes legislation that accords with First Nations priorities for the Spirit Bear Protection Area which falls within the traditional and unceded territories of four First Nations: the Kitasoo/Xais-xais, Gitga'at, Heilstuk, and Haisla/Hainaksula. Treaty negotiations over territorial claims are ongoing with the BC government and federal government.

kermode9_web.jpg
photo: ronthiele.com
A 2005 status report called into question the protection of the Spirit Bear Rainforest from clearcutting. The status report, authored by the David Suzuki Foundation, concluded that 80 percent of crucial spirit bear habitat is still at risk.

According to some observers, however, the report's conclusions are a
tad alarmist. Art Sterritt, a former chief treaty negotiator for the Gitga'at First Nation, is now the executive director of the Coastal First Nations, a grouping of First Nations working together to forge an ecologically sustainable economy. Sterritt acknowledges that some clearcutting is still going on in the Spirit Bear Rainforest but says that "major, major advances have been made to improve" the situation.

The rainforest and masala are important to his people. Sterritt relates how the Gitga'at First Nation has been living in "co-existence with masala forever … [and] have won the right to use the bear as a crest" -- exclusively for the hereditary chief.

Today, First Nations continue to fight for recognition and treaty rights to their ancestral lands. Few treaties were signed with the First Nations of BC. Sterritt describes the treaty discussions as "pretty disappointing," being "bogged down in bureaucracies," "stalled," and "not moving along well at all." The "snail's pace" of the process -- which many say is deliberate -- serves the interests of the province well.

But progress is near on a land use deal, says Sterritt. "The First Nations are on the verge of striking a new deal with the BC provincial government."

The Gitga'at and Kitasoo/Xais-xais First Nations have developed land-use plans that go a long way to protecting some of masala's essential habitat.

The Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nation has already designated protected areas -- the Nakami Weld -- where resource extractive industries will be prohibited. The remaining land base of the traditional territory will be managed according to Ecosystem Based Management (EBM) principles: sustainable use of the land and resources. The purpose is to foster economic development and job creation while respecting ecological values and conserving wildlife and marine life.

According to Sterritt, the EBM should be fully implemented by 2009.

Territorial sovereignty is delayed, but the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest and environmentalists have achieved an ecological victory. In so doing, a large expanse of intact rainforest is preserved for Original Peoples and their culture to flourish and for masala and other wild species to thrive.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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