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Stateside Podcast: A rare white bear

Earlier this month, a hunter in Michigan’s western Upper Peninsula shared an extraordinary sight from a trail cam: a black bear with white fur.

MLivereports this is the first recorded sighting of a white black bear in Michigan.

Although albinism is common in nature — a condition marked by a lack of pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes — large carnivore specialist Cody Norton of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources says the images are actually of a light blonde bear, not albino. Norton said the bear’s white coat is most likely caused by a rare recessive gene passed down by its parents.

What it initially made me think of… were the Kermode Bears, which are part of a unique subspecies up in British Columbia where 10 to 20% of the individuals in that population are white and look very similar to this bear. So that was kind of what popped into my mind is, is this the same, you know, genetic trait that might have popped up here?” Norton said.

Since their release, the photos of the white bear, which Norton estimates to be around two years old, have spurred an outpouring of excitement and fascination from readers, naturalists, and hunters online. But the photos have also caused many people to express concern for the rare bear’s safety. Black bear hunting is legal in Michigan with a license, and this bear is not protected from hunting based on its unique coat.

According to Norton, the Legislature or the Natural Resources Commission could make a change in law or regulation that would protect bears with unique coats from being hunted, but there are no current plans for that change.

Nonetheless, Norton said the hunter who found the bear on the trail cam has no desire to hunt this bear, nor reveal its location for other hunters.

“They hope that it makes it through and gets older and they continue monitoring it,” he said.

For Austin Ayres, a wildlife technician with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Department of Natural Resources, the white bear is a sign of positive change from nature.

“Those understandings come from many generations of living here with those animals and with the plants,” Ayres said. “When we see things like this, it's just that strong indicator, you know, that anything and everything is possible within nature. And we shouldn't expect all bad and all good all the time. So when you see things like this, it's just a good reminder.”

Stateside found this story from Sheri McWhirter at MLive, who originally reported on the white bear photos.

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Anna joined Stateside as an assistant producer in August 2021. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University's School of Journalism and previously worked for The State News as an intern and student government reporter.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.