Man tries to save rare white black bear from hunters

Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Pat Costello first saw what he calls the ''Spirit Bear'' last week -- a ghostly blur of white, disappearing into some woods near Juneau.

''It was the whitest bear I'd ever seen,'' said the Juneau freelance photographer. ''Just beautiful.''

Beautiful enough to keep around for a while, Costello said. That's why, on Thursday, Costello filed a petition with the state Board of Game to have this bear -- this one bear -- exempt from being hunted when the bear season opens Sept. 1.

''A bear like this deserves to be around for people to see,'' Costello said. ''I want to make sure of that. It shouldn't end up on someone's wall.''

The board will meet in emergency session by teleconference at 11 a.m. on Friday to consider the request, said game board executive director Diana Cote. The board is not scheduled to hold a regular meeting until November. The bear hunting season lasts through June 30.

In his petition, Costello is asking the state Board of Game to immediately close the season on white-phase black bears in the region. His request wouldn't affect hunting of other black bears.

In addition to his formal request, Costello handed state Fish and Game officials an inch-thick stack of e-mail messages he's recently received from people who've seen his pictures of the Spirit Bear on his Web site, Costello, a 41-year-old state employee, is also a free-lance photographer.

''In just the past 24 hours I must've gotten between 250 and 300 e-mails,'' he said Thursday. ''People from Israel, Ireland, England, all across the U.S. Even a couple from some (Alaska) Fish and Game folks.''

The bear emerged from some woods near town while Costello was waiting to take pictures of other black bears last week. The state capital city has a continuing problem with bears coming into town and raiding trash cans and bins.

He found himself standing in awe at the first sighting and hadn't snapped a shot before the bear disappeared back into the trees.

The white bear showed again about 45 minutes later, Costello said: ''And I took 22 shots in about 60 seconds. Then it went back again into the woods. It was exciting. I was visibly shaking.''

The bear is creamy white, almost like a polar bear, but with a distinctive raccoon mask around the eyes. Most likely it is a variation of what biologists call a glacier bear, genetically a black bear, but with a light colored fur coat that can run from cinnamon to golden retriever blond to blue-white.

''Actually, there are a lot of different color morphs with black bear,'' said Neil Barten, Douglas area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. ''But not quite this white. This is definitely unusual.''

Unusual or not, the bear is still a black bear. And, barring any action from the board, Juneau's Spirit Bear would be fair game in a little more than a week, said Matt Robus, deputy director of Fish and Game's Division of Wildlife Conservation. He added that his office also has gotten messages and phone calls from people asking the bear be spared from this season's hunt.

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