White 'Spirit bear' saved from hunting season

Posted: Sunday, August 25, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A rare white-colored black bear got a reprieve from the hunter's gunsights Friday morning.

In a teleconference meeting, the Alaska Board of Game ordered an emergency closure on hunting of all ''white phase'' black bears in the Juneau area. Effectively, that covers only one known white phase bear, the one spotted and photographed last week by local photographer Pat Costello.

Costello petitioned the board Thursday asking that the bear he's dubbed ''Spirit bear'' be exempt when hunting season opens Sept. 1.

''I'm thrilled with what the board did,'' Costello said Friday afternoon. ''They realized there's an extreme interest in this bear.''

Costello had the backing of hundreds of e-mail messages received this week after he posted a picture of the bear on his Web site, www.juneauphotos.com. People all over the world don't want to see the bear harmed, he said.

''People recognize this is a unique animal. It's important to them, whether they ever get to see it or not,'' he said. ''They don't want to see it just made into another rug.''

Game board executive director Diana Cote said board members agreed, and the state Department of Fish and Game told the policy-making panel it also supported the hunting ban. State game officials say they also have been flooded with phone calls and e-mail messages this week urging them to spare the bear.

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 fur coat that can run from cinnamon to golden retriever blond to blue-white.

While glacier bears are somewhat scarce, a bear this white is rare even among glacier bears. Biologists in Southeast Alaska said they have not seen another like it.

''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.''

The hunting ban will last at least until the game board's regular meeting Nov. 1, when they will ask for public testimony and decide whether to extend the ban through the rest of the hunting season, which ends June 30.

State biologists in the area have known of the bear's existence for a few years. But knowledge of it became public after Costello took its picture.

The bear had emerged from some woods near town while Costello was waiting to take pictures of other black bears. 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.''

Taking any black bear out of season in Alaska is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, a maximum $5,000 fine and a $600 restitution fee for the value of the bear to the state. Conviction would also result in forfeiture of the weapon used to kill the animal.

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