Halo – Minnesota’s White Bear

On May 20, 1997, a most unexpected “guest” ventured into the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary near Orr, Minnesota. Volunteers were busy at work when much to their surprise they spotted a white bear moving through the trees. The young, timid bear eventually stepped out into the opening and the afternoon sun backlit the tips of the bear’s white fur creating an awesome halo-like effect. Volunteers at the Sanctuary dubbed the two and a half-year-old newcomer “Halo.” 

Color variation among black bears is nothing new. Black, brown, cinnamon, and even silver-blue colored black bears are known to exist in different places throughout North America. An occasional albino is also possible. However, Halo was not an albino, as his nose and eyes were not the characteristic pink color.

A small population of white-phased bears exists on three small, isolated islands along the western coast of British Columbia, Canada. Princess Royal Island, with its isolation as well as its pristine ancient rain forests and clear rivers, serves as a haven for these rare bears. Called Kermode bears, about one out of every ten is white. These beautiful white animals are commonly known as spirit bears or ghost bears. Continuous pressure on their habitat seriously jeopardizes the future of these unusual bears.

In a letter from Dr. Kermit Ritland, a University of British Columbia professor involved with genetic research of Kermode bears, he writes, “There is no question in my mind that the white color of Halo is genetically determined. Halo is definitely a white-phased black bear.” He goes on to say, “The gene responsible for Kermodism is probably an ancient mutation, which arose far before recent glaciations.”

The fact that a white-phase black bear mysteriously appeared in Minnesota made the worldwide news. Halo’s repeated visits to the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary offered thousands of people the rare opportunity to view this incredible bear in the wild. His seemingly gregarious nature and frequent displays of play behavior made him a favorite among Sanctuary volunteers and visitors.

Halo was last sighted in May 1998. In 1999, the Minnesota Division of Natural Resources passed a permanent regulation protecting all white-phased black bears from hunting. It is the hope of many people, that the rare genetic pool will be perpetuated and Minnesota will someday host a population of these extraordinary white bears.

For more information about how you can help ensure a safe future for the spirit bears of Princess Royal Island and British Columbia, please contact the Valhalla Wilderness Society at Box 329, New Denver, British Columbia VOG 1S0, Canada, phone: (250) 358-2333 or the National Resources Defense Council at 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011.