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The Great Bear Rainforest: Get the Facts

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GREAT BEAR RAINFOREST: Stretching along the BC coast from Vancouver Island’s northern tip to the Alaska panhandle, the Great Bear Rainforest represents 25 percent of the world’s remaining ancient coastal temperate rainforests. Home to more than 230 species of birds and 68 species of mammals, it’s the largest intact temperate rainforest left anywhere on Earth. Thousand-year-old giant red cedars tower 30 stories over a tangle of vibrant forest life below.

In recent years, small victories have been won on behalf of the Great Bear Rainforest. In February 2006, the BC government promised it would protect 2.1 million hectares (5 million acres) of the GBR from logging. That’s an area half the size of Switzerland. Agreements were made with logging companies to practice responsible ecosystem-based management (EBM) logging in the remaining unprotected areas of the forest. As of 2009, the provincial government said it had earmarked $120 million for the project—half of that from private donations. But a year later, any evidence of an actual government-guided transition to soft-impact logging has yet to be seen. So far, nothing has been done beyond agreeing that the area needs protecting. Everybody just nodded their heads and shook on it…and then went right back to work.

Old logging practices die hard, say industry experts. All the industry players—the logging companies, the government and the economy itself—are all married to the idea of logging at levels that are unsustainable over the long term. The provincial government is still issuing licenses to build roads and log in unprotected areas of the GBR.

If EBM logging goes ahead in the Great Bear Rainforest like it’s supposed to, it’ll be the first wide-scale practice of its kind in the world.

BIODIVERSITY: Biodiversity refers to the variation in organisms in a given area. It’s often used by scientists as a measure of the health of a given ecosystem. Often compared to the Amazon, the Great Bear Rainforest is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. This intricate coastline is home to thousands of species. If you stretched it out, it would cover more than twenty-five thousand kilometers!

But even though the Great Bear Rainforest is healthy now, that doesn’t mean it’s not at risk. Scientists have discovered dangerous toxins in the bodies of animals from the Great Bear Rainforest. These chemicals drift on air and ocean currents from other countries, eventually establishing permanence within the food chain of this threatened landscape. And if the buildup of toxic chemicals wasn’t enough to worry about, there’s also the systemic threat of the annual grizzly bear trophy hunt. When hunters kill the largest, most beautiful bears in the rainforest, they’re removing what are often the fittest individuals from the population. Over time, this selective pressure on the grizzly population can have devastating effects.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE GREAT BEAR RAINFOREST: Scientists have realized that the Great Bear Rainforest does a lot more than grow big trees. It’s also the site of one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. All those trees? They capture harmful carbon dioxide from the air around them, consuming it in their photosynthetic processing and returning oxygen to the atmosphere.

The Great Bear Rainforest is a storehouse for huge amounts of carbon dioxide. If it were to be logged, all that carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere—an estimated 153 million tonnes of it. That’s three times what the entire province of BC emits from the use of fossil fuels in one year.

And we all know that that’s not a good news story.

A changing climate also means bears have no guarantee of a good snow pack at higher elevations during their winter hibernation seasons. There’s also the worry that rising ocean and river temperatures might alter the spawning habits of the salmon on which nearly every form of life in this forest depends.

Animal Info

SALMON—FOUNDATION OF THE FOREST: When the salmon spawn, they feed the wolves, bears, eagles and ravens. They leap out of the streams and are pulled onto the shorelines by their hungry captors. Coastal gray wolves drag the salmon carcasses even farther into the forest, where they feed thousands upon thousands of insects and microorganisms. The decaying fish release nitrogen into the soil around them: nature’s super-fertilizer. It’s this high concentration of salmon-derived nitrogen that allows the trees along the coast and up through the river valleys to grow so large. In turn, these giant Sitka spruce and red cedar trees create havens for eagles above and wolves below.

It’s a land of plenty, an intricate web of life where each organism is uniquely supported by those surrounding it.

So what’ll happen when the salmon cease to run?

THE WILDEST WOLVES IN THE WORLD: Mysterious and elusive, wolves have had a bad rap throughout history. In addition to their mythical job of gobbling girls in red cloaks and sneaking around in fake lamb suits, wolves have been feared and reviled to the point where they’ve been hunted out of existence in many parts of North America. For decades, hunters were encouraged—even paid bounties—to kill wolves for fear that they would harm livestock or people living near their territory. It’s an unbalanced stereotype, to be sure: while wolves have indeed been known to pick off the odd stray calf or two, to date there hasn’t been a single verified attack on a human. While they still roam much of Canada due to its huge tracts of wilderness, wolves are under constant threat of hunting for sport or for their fur. No restrictions exist to control or limit the way wolves are hunted. In no way is this intelligent, social, family-dwelling animal protected.

British Columbia is home to the gray wolf. A specialized population of these wolves makes its home along the wet western fringe of Canada, in the temperate Great Bear Rainforest that borders the Pacific Ocean. This is the coastal wolf. Smaller and redder than its inland cousins, the coastal wolf lives in harmony with the other species of the Great Bear Rainforest: otters, seals, black bears, grizzly bears, eagles, moose, cougars, mountain goats and, of course, the salmon.

Highly social, the coastal wolf lives in close-knit communities, similar to humans. Relatively untouched by human contact, this particular population of animals can teach us a lot about wolf behavior. For centuries, the coastal wolves have shared the rainforest with First Nations groups, each allowing the other the space and respect they need. Many current wolf dens in the Great Bear Rainforest can be found at ancient First Nations village sites.

Some coastal wolves make their homes on the mainland. Others live among the many small islands that crowd the coastline. Swimming like the otters and fishing like the bears that share its misty marine world, the coastal wolf subsists on a diet of deer, moose, mountain goats, salmon, crabs and even shellfish.

There is no wolf like it anywhere else on Earth.

A DELICATE BALANCE ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD: The coastal wolves are a truly unique population. Skilled hunters and fishers, these animals are the apex predator of the Great Bear Rainforest. A number of years ago, photographer Ian McAllister witnessed a pack of coastal wolves take down a fully mature adult bear. “Ripped to shreds” were his words, actually (The Last Wild Wolves, Greystone Books, 2007). These are not your average wolves.

And this is not your average wolf habitat. This is the coastal temperate rainforest—one of the rarest and most endangered forest types on Earth. Richer in biomass than the Amazon and home to trees in excess of 1,500 years old, the Great Bear Rainforest encompasses more than 25,000 kilometers of coastline.

But this extraordinary ecosystem is at risk from human activity. Clear-cut logging in the Great Bear Rainforest threatens to change the face of the watershed, filling up the streams with silt and removing the trees that provide shelter for the deer during heavy winter snowstorms. And fewer deer mean fewer wolves. The salmon that forms up to half the wolf’s diet—a “keystone” species in the rainforest—is under threat too. Without it, nothing will flourish. Yet in recent years, overfishing, the destruction of salmon spawning grounds by human activity, climate change and diseases spread by fish farms have led to a zero return in some rivers. It’s the start of a cascade of negative events that will ultimately affect the whole chain of life in the forest.

THE COASTAL WOLF—NOT YOUR AVERAGE CANINE: Think about The Great Bear Rainforest. Think about all the animals that live there. You know: seals, otters, eagles, salmon, deer, wolves, whales, bears. Of all the animals that call the Great Bear Rainforest home, you’re probably thinking that the apex predator—the one that eats pretty much anything it wants—is the bear, right?

Wrong. Try something that’s about one fifth the size and one tenth the weight of your standard bear.

It’s the coastal wolf.

Adult wolves have no natural predators. Pups are sometimes swiped by cougars, eagles or bears, sure—but nobody messes with the grown-ups.

Coastal wolves are the last truly wild group of wolves anywhere in the world. Some of them have never even seen a human being before. Out here in the Great Bear Rainforest at the western edge of British Columbia, things are different than everywhere else. On the coast, wolves haven’t been hunted to the brink of extinction like they have been in other parts of North America. They’ve existed for centuries in this place, side by side in a delicate balance of nature with the other species and the many First Nations groups that call this place home.

But that balance is slowly changing. And it’s humans who are to blame.

Take Action!

SPEAKING OUT FOR THE GREAT BEAR RAINFOREST: With every passing year, humans are moving deeper into the coastal wolves’ territory. Hunting continues unchecked, fish farms spread disease to wild salmon and overfishing jeopardizes healthy salmon stocks. Plans are underway to run a pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to BC’s coast—straight through the Great Bear Rainforest. That means oil tankers may one day travel in these waters, putting the wolves’ entire livelihood in danger if there should ever be a spill. Even offshore oil drilling in BC’s waters is a future possibility—and the recent drilling rig catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico shows us just how much of a disaster that can be.

It’s not too late to make a difference though. There’s a lot you can do. First off, get informed. Read as much as you can, starting with the Great Bear books from Orca Book Publishers. Watch documentaries online. Ask your teacher for links to websites where you can learn more. It’s important that you become as informed and knowledgeable about your subject as possible. That way, people will sit up and listen when you speak.

Remember, you have a lot of power. Although you’re not a voter yet, you have a voice. Write to your elected representative and explain your thoughts about what’s happening in the Great Bear Rainforest. Be sure to express your concerns clearly, and back them up with facts, details and examples from the reading you’ve done. Don’t just say it’s a bad situation and demand that the government protect the Great Bear Rainforest. Instead, suggest specific solutions for the problems that are facing the forest and its animal citizens. You’ll be able to get your point across more clearly if you are very specific in your requests.

SHRINK YOUR ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT: You’ve heard about ecological footprints, right? We’re talking about the impact you have on the environment every day—the amount of demand you’re putting on the Earth’s ecosystems by the way you live your life. Do you prefer to drive to the store rather than hopping on your bike? Do you turn on the heat instead of putting on a sweater? Those are the kinds of day-to-day choices we make that affect the size of our ecological footprint.

Your ecological footprint represents the actual amount of land and sea you’d need to sustain your lifestyle. Think you wouldn’t gobble up too much space? Maybe. Maybe not. Most people in North America live as though we’ve got three or four planets to sustain us. But we know there’s only one. Something’s got to change.

To get a grip on your ecological footprint, visit Global Footprint Network. See how much you’re asking of the Earth. And then see what you can do to ask just a little bit less.

HALTING THE TROPHY HUNT: Almost 80 percent of British Columbians are against the grizzly hunt. The trophy hunt reduces the number of fit bears in an already small population. It puts cubs at risk of starving to death if their mothers are killed. And even though it’s illegal to shoot a white spirit bear, they’re still at risk. Unknown to the outside observer, black bears can carry the genes for the rare white Kermode bear. No hunter can know whether the bear he kills might have given birth to a baby spirit bear.


TANKER TRAGEDIES TO COME: Since 1972, oil tankers have been banned from traveling along BC’s north coast. But all that’s about to change. Oil and gas companies are pushing to construct a pipeline to pump oil from Alberta’s tar sands through BC. The proposed pipeline meets the ocean at the coastal port of Kitimat. From there, the tankers will wind their way through the ecologically sensitive islands of the Great Bear Rainforest and out to the Pacific Ocean. But what happens when one of them runs aground on the rocks during an epic coastal storm? When the Exxon Valdez ran aground off the coast of Alaska in 1989, it dumped 11 million gallons (about 40 million liters) of crude oil into the pristine coastal waters. Twenty-two orca whales died, along with 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, 2,800 sea otters and up to a quarter million seabirds. Environmental experts say the effects are still being felt by coastal organisms today.

How Well Do You Know the Animals of the Great Bear Rainforest

How much do you know about the Great Bear Rainforest? Test your knowledge with this quiz about the animals who call it home. Once you're finished the quiz, you can check your answers by clicking on the ANSWERS tab. No peeking until you're done though!

Questions in the trivia quiz are generated in a random order. The questions and answers listed here may appear in a differnt order than they did during the quiz.

Q: After catching salmon for their meals, coastal wolves always eat the whole fish.
A: False. When a wolf pack goes fishing, they can scoop up to 200 salmon in one session. But they only eat the heads and the brains because those are the fattiest parts.

Q: Both bears and wolves use their paws to catch salmon.
A: False. Wolves aren't eqiipped with the same long fishhook claws that bears have, so they have to use their jaws and teeth to catch salmon.

Q: Grizzly bears are excellent swimmers.
A: True. Grizzly bears also enjoy playing in the water, especially on hot summer days when they need to cool off.

Q: Like human hair, a grizzly bear's fur comes in many shades, including blond, brown and black.
A: True. Young grizzly bears come in many colors, but most are a rich chocolate brown.

Q: Bears and wolves tend to wander, not planning their routes or destinations.
A: False. Bears tend to wander, while wolf trails are straight, narrow and purposeful because wolves always seem to know where they're going.

Q: Grizzly bears are larger than black bears, meaning they can run faster and are better at climing trees.
A: False. Not only are black bears better at climbing trees, they can also run faster—up to 60 km/h. Grizzly bears can run as fast as 50 km/h, but only for a kilometer or two.

Q: Each species of salmon in the Great Bear Rainforest differs from the others based on their size, how many years they live, and how long they spend in fresh and salt water.
A: Each species of salmon in the northwest Pacific is different from others based on how long they live in fresh and salt water, how big they grow and how many years they live.

Q: Every wolf has his or her own tone and style of howl.
A: True. Every wolf has his or her own tone and style of howl. Howls are used for many reasons, including reuniting a separated pack and celebrating together.

Q: Polar bears and spirit bears have more in common than spirit bears and black bears, or spirt bears and grizzlies.
A: False. The only thing polar bears and spirit bears have in common is that they are both white! Spirit bears are essentially black bears of a different color.

Q: Otters have a thin, light coat that helps them swim quickly and float on the surface.
A: False. A sea otter’s coat has more than a million hairs per square inch. That makes it phenomenally dense and thick. It also allows sea otters themselves to float on the surface and stay warm in what is usually a very cold sea.

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Who Do These Paws Belong To?

Test your knowledge of animals that live in the Great Bear Rainforest. When you think you know which animal makes each print, place your cursor over the paw print to reveal the answer. You'll also find a fun fact about each animal. Good luck!

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Purchase The Salmon Bears, The Sea Wolves, The Great Bear Sea and Wolf Island. Available in print and digital editions. Discounts available for schools and libraries.

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Teachers’ Guides

Use Great Bear books in your classroom? Download our teachers' guides for The Salmon Bears and The Sea Wolves.

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Nowhere Else On Earth

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A hands-on guide to the magic and majesty of British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest, with suggestions for activism in any community.

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