Feature Articles from BHM

Aug 21 2014

25-Day Ghost Hunt

25 -Day Ghost Hunt

THE GLACIER BEAR IS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BEARS IN THE WORLD, IT'S ALSO ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT TO HARVEST. LEARN THE BIOLOGY BEHIND THESE UNIQUE BEARS AND ABOUT JAY LINK'S 25 -DAY QUEST FOR A GHOST

“Such a magnificent animal roaming our planet is intriguing and should stimulate a sense of duty and respect for them. Increased knowledge is a powerful driver for conservation and is key in our front against the anti-hunting community. Knowledge is power, even if ignorance is bliss.”

Glacier bears are a subspecies of the Black Bear (Ursus americanis), which only inhabit a relatively small region of southeast Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon.

These bears are some of the most beautiful on the planet. The intent of this article is to educate and inform our readers about this unique subspecies. As bear hunters, it is our duty and right to be knowledgeable about the animals that we value so much. Our primary intent is not to promote that hunters go and specifically target glacier bears, though it is legal in Alaska. As you’ll see, going after one is like hunting a ghost. They are likely the most difficult bear on the planet to harvest and most people would spend futile years in pursuit of such an animal. Our intent is to educate and feed the sense of awe and appreciation that we all have for bears.

Such a magnificent animal roaming our planet is intriguing and should stimulate a sense of duty and respect for them. Increased knowledge is a powerful driver for conservation and is key in our front against the anti-hunting community. Knowledge is power, even if ignorance is bliss.

Glacier Bears
Subspecies is the taxonomic rank below species in biological classification. The Oxford dictionary defines it as a taxonomic category that ranks below species, usually a fairly permanent, geographicallyisolated race. This is the key identifier defining a subspecies – geographic isolation. Subspecies can interbreed and produce viable offspring with the mainstream species, but are generally geographically isolated and do not regularly interbreed with other animals in the same species. Glacier bears are considered a subspecies, Ursus americanis emmonsii, however, they do interbreed with black-colored bears because glaciers no longer isolate them.

Biologists speculate that the blue-gray color variation developed when glaciers in the last Ice Age isolated a small population of bears. But why is this color phase only here? Genetic variation in isolated pockets of a species can cause a change in phenotype. Phenotype is the visible manifestation in the way an animal looks – like a black-colored bear or a grey bear. Genotype is the genetic, unseen, difference within the animals of a species. For instance, two black-colored bears would have the same phenotype. They look the same. They could have, however, a different genotype. Meaning, their genes could be different. One of the black bear’s parents may have been a color-phase bear, and thus it carries a colored gene. In short, these bears were isolated and had a gene that allowed them to be a different color. Ten’s of thousands of years of breeding in a relatively small gene pool created the glacier bear subspecies.

This color is ideal camouflage against a landscape dominated by ice and rock. They say the bears are almost invisible with an icy backdrop, unless moving. Some believe that the color phase is now in a long-term process of decline, as black-colored bears immigrate into the region, and bears that carry the glacier color-phase gene emigrate out, diluting the clearly geographically- specific gene. This would likely be a process that would take place over thousands of years, not centuries or decades, if true at all.

The glacier bear and Kermode bear are both different subspecies and are also considered a color phase of the Black Bear. In contrast, chocolate, cinnamon and blonde bears are color phases, but are not subspecies. Again, the difference is found in geographic isolation. The Kermode bears developed because of genetic isolation on a few islands off the coast of British Columbia. One in ten bears in this region is the white color phase. One in fifty bears are the blue/grey color phase in southeast Alaska. However, the overall population of glacier bears is speculated to be more than the population of Kermode bears. The region that they inhabit is larger. However, there are no official studies that we found that estimate the numbers of glacier bears on the planet. The Kermode color-phase bear is typically considered the rarest Black Bear in the world, and is protected by law in British Columbia.

HUNTING FOR A GHOST
Jay Link is the owner of Link’s Wild Safaris, a huntbooking agency, and has had the opportunity to hunt bears all over the world. In 2012, he was fortunate enough to harvest a glacier bear in southeast Alaska. It wasn’t an accident. Link was after a glacier bear. His journey included 25 days of total hunting spanning two years. In the words of Link, “It was like hunting a ghost.”

He teamed up with an outfitter that hunts a region known to hold the unique color phase. The Alaska Game and Fish sites that one in 50 bears of that region are the blue/grey color, however, Link’s observations were different.

“From what I saw, about one in 150 bears were the glacier color phase.” Link said.

During his first trip in 2011, he saw over 130 bears, but in 15 straight days of glassing they saw neither hide-nor-hair of a glacier bear. He says that one of the most difficult parts of the hunt is passing up the other black bears that you see. The hunt took place in May when snow still covered the mountainsides. According to Link, visibility is key when glassing for bears. You need to be able to view vast areas of land. Typically, bears den in the higher mountain regions and move into the valleys to feed. During this time you catch bears moving from their dens into the feeding areas.

On this hunt, Link and his guide took a floatplane into an interior glacier lake. They stayed in a primitive camp and would daily use an inflatable skiff powered by a six horsepower motor to go to different areas to glass. They used snowshoes to trek to good vantage points. The team spent days, weeks and almost an entire month glassing for a bear.

THE HUNT
Link left Alaska in 2011 without seeing a single glacier bear...