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Fate of Clover the ‘spirit bear’ from B.C. draws international interest

Clover, a rare white bear who has become the focus of a debate in British Columbia over captive wildlife

Peter Langen

A debate over the fate of Clover, a rare "spirit bear" put in a zoo by the British Columbia government, is becoming international in scope.

Ian McAllister, founding director of Pacific Wild, said his environmental organization is getting a "steady stream" of correspondence from people outside Canada who want the bear freed.

"We have had e-mails from the U.S., Germany and Switzerland and … other international correspondence," he said in a note Thursday from his home on remote Denny Island, on B.C.'s central coast.

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Mr. McAllister, an author and photographer whose books on bears and wolves have helped make the Great Bear Rainforest world famous, has written to B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake, urging him to give Clover another chance.

"We believe this bear has not been given adequate opportunity to be released back into the wild, away from human garbage and harassment. Furthermore, allowing this bear, a rare and iconic symbol of our province, to be exploited for profit due to the reported negligence of individuals is unacceptable, especially when an alternative exists," Mr. McAllister wrote.

Clover was picked up as an orphan last year near Smithers, B.C. After spending the winter in the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter, the bear was released. But three months later, he broke into a camp shelter looking for food and was trapped by B.C. conservation officers.

Because he is a Kermode – a rare, white-coated subspecies of black bear – he was placed in the BC Wildlife Park, near Kamloops, rather than being shot as a problem animal. He is expected to be a star attraction at the park – one of only about 200 spirit bears in British Columbia, the only place in the world they are found.

Glenn Grant, general manager of the BC Wildlife Park, says Clover is habituated to humans now and can't be released because he will just get back into trouble.

"To date there is no scientific proof that I am aware of that shows bear rehab and release is a successful option," Mr. Grant said in an e-mail.

But Mr. McAllister says there are wild places in the Great Bear Rainforest where there is little chance Clover would ever come into conflict with people.

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"Princess Royal Island, Gribbell Island or one of the adjacent mainland systems, all of which are separated by water from human camps and habitation, would work well," Mr. McAllister told Mr. Lake. "These locations remain part of the same Kermode gene pool, and given the rich bear habitat associated with them we believe Clover would stand an excellent chance of survival in the wild."

Mr. McAllister said his group could raise the funds needed to keep Clover over winter and to move him to a release site next spring.

But Mr. Lake, who has also been under pressure from the animal-rights group Lifeforce, has rejected the idea of Clover's release.

"I'm a huge animal lover, but I also know from our large mammal specialists in the ministry that if we are going to allow this bear to [be released], we are sentencing it to death. And I don't think that's appropriate," he said in a statement.

"I believe the right decision was made in this case," Mike Badry, wildlife conflicts prevention co-ordinator for the province, said in an interview. "If an animal has gone down that road of being habituated where it can no longer be left in the wild, we would support its transfer to a certified wildlife facility." He said the danger of moving Clover outside his home range is that he may not be well-adapted to the new environment, and will likely try to return to where he was captured.

"We don't do [long-range moves] to resolve conflicts. It is usually unsuccessful. These animals will travel long distances, they'll certainly try to get back to where they were originally captured. That often results in them getting hit by a car, or starved to death or killed by resident animals. There is a lot of peril. The risks outweigh the benefits," Mr. Badry said.

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But Mr. McAllister says the government is wrong. "Over a dozen severely human-habituated grizzly bears were transported from Kemano to Mussel River in the 1990s with not a single human/bear conflict reported," he states. "So we know this can work. It just needs government support."

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About the Authors
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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