On the eve of a long-awaited land-use agreement for the Great Bear Rainforest, scientists are decrying the fact that Gribbell Island — the greatest habitat on the coast for B.C.’s official mammal, the Spirit Bear — won’t receive official protected-area status.

One of those scientists, veteran bear biologist Wayne McCrory, a director of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, fears that without full protection, Gribbell Island could be logged or mined in future, with involvement by the Gitga’at First Nation, and that the Spirit Bears’ critical habitat won’t be assured.

“This is Canada’s unique bear Galapagos …” McCrory said. “Both of the only two valleys that support small runs of salmon on this small island have been heavily clearcut so there is no longer any margin for ecological error and misjudgment.”

The B.C. government adopted the white phase of the black bear — commonly known as the Spirit Bear — as the province’s official mammal in 2006. It is also known as Kermode bear, after the Royal B.C. Museum’s first director.

The official land-use agreement for the Great Bear Rainforest is a decade in the making and is expected to be announced soon by the B.C. government, First Nations, environmentalists and the timber industry.

A total of 88 scientists from around the world have signed a letter urging the B.C. government to preserve 20,000-hectare Gribbell Island, which is located on the north coast near Douglas Channel, southwest of Kitimat, near the Gitga’at reserve. Among the signatories are Tom Reimchen, adjunct biology professor at the University of Victoria, and University of Calgary professor emeritus Stephen Herrero.

A study by McCrory suggested that more than 40 per cent of the 100 to 150 Spirit Bears on the island are white and the rest black, which compares with a rate of one in 10 elsewhere on the north coast where white bears live.

Gribbell Island is designated a “stewardship” area, which does not prohibit mining and further clearcut logging.

McCrory argued that lack of full protection amounts to an “international travesty,” adding the “Gitga’at have a great world-class bear-viewing operation on Gribbell they need to protect.”

Gitga’at councillor Marven Robinson has operated a commercial bear-viewing business on Gribbell Island for years, and has been featured in international documentaries and feature articles on the Spirit Bears.

He said the council would be discussing this issue further but that he personally has concerns with parks because they can protect the land from aboriginal use, including potential logging, but that his bear-viewing business is not a factor in his position.

“I would not put myself and my business in front of this community,” he said. “We’re going to start protecting our territory for our interests, not anybody else’s. That just the way it’s got to be.”

Vivian Thomas, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said in response that Princess Royal Island, another important spot for the Spirit Bear, is also partly protected on the north coast.

She added that the “ecosystem-based management standards” of the Gitga’at are intended to produce well-managed forests on Gribbell while managing important habitat for the bears. The existing impact of logging on the island is estimated at seven per cent, affording “vast amounts of unlogged forests,” she added.

Thomas confirmed that an announcement on the Great Bear Rainforest agreement is expected “very soon.”

A Joint Solutions Project report by the logging industry and environmentalists in 2014 did not propose protected-area status for Gribbell Island.

Jens Wieting, forest and climate campaigner with Sierra Club B.C., said that lengthy negotiations resulted in tough trade-offs in the Great Bear Rainforest and that there was an agreement that no new protected areas would be created without First Nations’ approval.

He said there is a “high degree of confidence” that enough Spirit Bear habitat will be off-limits to logging under the proposed Great Bear agreement and noted that the issue of additional protection could be revisited in future if the bears require it.

Wieting added that more than 80 per cent of the island would be off-limits to logging under proposed land-use targets.