A genetically rare white-coated black bear — often referred to as a “ghost bear” — lives in the wilds of the western Upper Peninsula.
An approximately 100-pound male bear with blond coloring appeared on a wildlife camera this month, September 2022, aimed at a bait pile set up ahead of the annual bear hunting season. Wildlife officials said this is the first time in Michigan’s recorded history that such an animal has been confirmed in the state.
The bear has fur that is almost all white but with some cinnamon hues on the head and neck. This is only the fifth time a “ghost bear” has been confirmed outside of British Columbia, meaning this Michigan animal is genetically one bear in a million, according to the nonprofit North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota.
Renowned bear researcher Lynn Rogers of the Wildlife Research Institute in Minnesota said the confirmation of a “ghost bear” in Michigan is an incredible discovery for wildlife science.
“So there are a couple of genes in that area,” he said excitedly. “It’s a double recessive gene. And if there are fewer of those genes here, it’s going to be rare that you get a double recessive combination.”
Such a genetic combination means that both the sow and the boar must carry the recessive gene in order for their offspring to have white or blond coats at birth.
Rogers said that the white bears known as Kermode bears that live on the islands along British Columbia’s Pacific coast are more likely to be born there because they are isolated from the larger black bear population on the mainland. The recessive genes appear more frequently in the limited gene pool.
Bear genetics, widespread across the vast expanse of North America, offer a much lower chance of white or blond coloring occurring, he said.
Because of this, Michigan wildlife authorities agreed that this is an incredible discovery with exciting scientific research opportunities.
“So very cool. Very nice animal,” said Cody Norton, a wildlife biologist and large carnivore expert at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Several people submitted the wildlife camera images to DNR officials after they were shared on social media. However, state wildlife experts have not been able to track the white bear since its discovery; They have been busy with the ongoing bear hunting season, which began on September 7th and will last through October.
There is no special legal protection for white-coated bears in Michigan as there is for British Columbia’s Kermode or “ghost” bears. These bears are known for being conspicuous in the forest, but they are adept salmon fishers because their white fur provides camouflage against the often overcast skies.
Michigan officials are eager to learn more.
“Of course I would like to see it. If it were harvested, we’d like to take a genetic sample and see if it’s the same genetic mutation found in British Columbia’s remote bear population, or if it’s something different,” Norton said.
“But obviously if it makes it through the season it would be great to see future trail camera photos and anything else to learn about it because it’s super cool, super unique.”
Two years ago, Norton said a few hunters in the western UP had turned up at DNR checkpoints with cinnamon-colored bears — light, reddish-brown fur — a more common variant of the same type of genetic mutation found in white bears.
Other cases of white-coated bears outside of British Columbia include confirmed sightings of an adult in Minnesota in 1997 and then several cubs sighted in southern Manitoba years later. First there were two white cubs with a black mother in 2000 and then a single white cub with a black mother in 2004.
This makes this Michigan white bear the first of its kind outside of British Columbia in 18 years.
Norton said wildlife camera photos show the Michigan “ghost bear” has coloring on its nose and skin, so it can’t be an albino or piebald animal. The white fur with a blonde or cinnamon patch on the neck and head is “very consistent” with Kermode bears, he said.
“If you look at everything else that’s showing up — rarer than a cougar or a lynx or anything else in Michigan — it’s pretty cool,” Norton said.
The UP resident, who owns the wildlife camera, said he literally didn’t believe it was a real white bear when he first saw images of the animal sent to his computer. He even deleted the first two photos, thinking it was just the bright camera flash illuminating a regular bear in the dark.
“Well the next day it was about five o’clock and I’m still getting pictures of that lure. And I look and I’m like, ‘Oh my God. Look at this thing.’”
The white “ghost bear” first appeared on wildlife cam on September 3, 2022, and most recently on September 7, 2022, he said.
The wildlife camera owner is a hunting guide in western UP and asked MLive to grant him anonymity after some of his photos were posted on social media along with his name but without his consent.
He then received critical messages from other hunters in the area who feared additional hunting pressure from outsiders because of his pictures. But he’s also received a slew of hateful messages from anti-hunting advocates, he said, some even containing threats.
Many apparently assumed that he was chasing the bear or leading one of his clients there. But he never intended to do that; The “ghost bear” is much too special, he said, and anyway still a bit too small for the main hunt.
“I didn’t want anyone to shoot that bear.”
Now the man said he hasn’t seen the white bear on his wildlife cam for a week and is concerned it may have been killed by an active wolf pack in the area.
That’s because one of his clients shot a 300-pound bear in the same area on September 8, 2022, and a pack of wolves began consuming significant portions of the dead bear in less than half an hour before it arrived at the tree stand up to help dress the animal.
“They literally ate a two foot by two foot piece of offal. They ate out most of the stomach and half the rib cage, part of the dorsal straps on it and part of the hindquarters – all in 27 minutes, just 80 meters from this hunter.”
He said he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the white bear disappeared the same day the wolves partially ate the larger bear shot by the archer he was guiding.
Whether the “ghost bear” was being hunted by a wolf pack in the area or continues to roam the deep forests of the UP, its confirmed appearance marks a special moment, especially for the local Indigenous people of the Keewenaw Bay Indian Community.
Austin Ayres, wildlife technician at KBIC’s Natural Resources Department, said that from a cultural perspective, the white bear is a representation of a new age being born for the Anishinaabe — the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes, including the Odawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi – Peoples throughout Michigan.
“This is a sign of great change. Some stories state that the bear only comes when it’s time for Anishinaabe to embrace her role and move away from her distractions. It’s a reminder that anything and everything is possible in nature, and people shouldn’t look outside of nature, but understand that everything we need is within,” Ayres said.
He further explained that in his culture’s historical stories, the time when a white bear arrives is also greeted by a “great abundance of medicinals in the landscape” and represents an age of healing.
“This is a sign for all people. We all have the choice to want more, to go further, to expand our understanding or to slow down, to understand water more as a spirit than a chemical, to know plants as the same beings as animals, not to dictate how doing others only gives them choices and the option to be better.”
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